Dalila Ali Rajah
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Here's Why Brittney Griner Was in Russia Before Being Detained

Brittney Griner playing basketball

Today, news broke that Brittney Griner, a famed basketball player, was detained by Russian authorities. Russian Federal Customs Service announced that they had detained an American basketball player who had won two Olympic gold medals. That player was later identified as Griner by a Russian news agency, and the WNBA and the Phoenix Mercury, who Griner plays for, have confirmed that Griner is being detained.

Griner was reportedly detained at the Sheremetyevo airport near Moscow. Many suspect that this happened in early February. Griner's last Instagram post is dated February 5.

Russian authorities say Griner was detained after a search of her luggage revealed hashish oil in vape cartridges. Hashish oil is an illegal substance in Russia, and Griner is being investigated for "smuggling" drugs. She reportedly faces up to 10 years in a Russian prison. 

Griner traveled to Russia to play for UMMC Ekaterinburg, which she has been doing since 2016. The team is reportedly backed by a large corporation.

An ESPN feature from May of that year dug into Griner's deal. UMMC Ekaterinburg provided each American player with a personal driver in addition to other amenities. "The restaurants are good, the team pays well and takes care of every detail — chartering flights to away games, delivering bottled water to their apartments — the arena is always filled with locals, and the coaching staff" was composed of many coaches Griner was familiar with from Phoenix Mercury.

Griner took the job to supplement her salary from the WNBA, which is something about half the league's players do. For her first season, she was paid a little less than $1 million which was about four times the WNBA's max annual salary. 

Of the seeming conflict with Griner, who is widely known to be lesbian, and Russia's anti LGBTQ+ policies, ESPN wrote "Russia's hostile climate, which elsewhere in the country has resulted in arrests, seems a world away from Griner, who is here to play ball, not make a human rights stand. As long as she doesn't run through Red Square waving a rainbow flag, nobody says a thing."

Kate Fagan, who wrote the ESPN feature, expounded on Twitter after news of Griner's detainment broke.

"The 'just don't make a scene about it' policy for players re: LGBT rights in Russia was clear," she wrote. "But there was also a sense that the team — in this case, UMMC, a mining [company] owned by a Russian billionaire — insulated players from the harsher realities of Russian life (and law.)

"Again this was 5+ years ago, and things have shifted dramatically, but my point is this: the experience of playing in Russia seemed to have a buffer, and I can't help but imagine [Griner] is stunned at how quickly that evaporated," Fagan continued. "Which leads me to: Where is UMMC in this?"

As Fagan noted, Phoenix Mercury, the WNBA, and other American organizations have all spoken out, saying that they have been working to return Griner home.

"I can't help but wonder what role UMMC is playing to free their star," Fagan wrote. "That Russian billionaire who owns the team? Iskander Makhmudov, one of the billionaires whose worth has plummeted."

It is currently unclear whether Griner was arriving in or leaving Russia when she was stopped at the airport. On February 11, six days after Griner's last Instagram post, the Biden administration told Americans to leave Ukraine and said that an invasion could begin "at any time." Some Americans also began to leave Russia at that time. Griner could have already been detained as that news was breaking.

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