The U.S. government has adjusted its stance on out WNBA star Brittney Griner's detention in Russia, now calling her wrongfully detained and committing to taking action to bring her home, sources have told ESPN.
"The change in official designation means that the U.S. government will no longer wait for Griner's case to play out through the Russian legal system and will seek to negotiate her return," ESPN reports. "It also means that Griner's fellow WNBA players and supporters in Congress will be told they have the family's blessing to bring as much attention to her case as they wish."
A State Department official confirmed the change in a statement to the outlet late Monday. "The Department of State has determined that the Russian Federation has wrongfully detained U.S. citizen Brittney Griner," the official said. "With this determination, the Special Presidential Envoy for Hostage Affairs Roger Carstens will lead the interagency team for securing Brittney Griner's release."
The department's consular office had previously been in charge of Griner's case. The consular office "monitors the cases of any American being held abroad without necessarily intervening," ESPN notes.
A source also told ESPN that Bill Richardson, former U.S. ambassador to the United Nations, had agreed to assist in Griner's case. He has been involved in several international hostage negotiations. The wrongful detention designation stops short of classifying her as a hostage.
Griner, center for the Phoenix Mercury, was arrested by Russian authorities in February when entering the country at the Sheremetyevo airport near Moscow. The official reason given was that she had vape cartridges containing hashish oil, an illegal substance in Russia. She has not been formally charged with any crime, but a court hearing is scheduled for May 19. She was in Russia to play for UMMC Ekaterinburg during the WNBA off-season.
"Brittney has been detained for 75 days and our expectation is that the White House do whatever is necessary to bring her home," Lindsay Kagawa Colas, Griner's agent, told ESPN Tuesday.
Nneka Ogwumike, president of the WNBA players' union, issued a statement on social media, saying, "Having learned that the U.S. government has now determined that BG is being wrongfully detained we are hopeful that their efforts will be significant, swift and successful."
Griner's wife, Cherelle Griner, has not commented publicly on the latest news. In an Instagram post in March, she had said, "Please honor our privacy as we continue to work on getting my wife home safely." A source told ESPN that Griner's family and friends "feel really good" about the new State Department designation, "but we also know it can drag out, so we don't want to get our hopes too high."
The WNBA will honor Brittney Griner when its season opens Friday. Griner's initials and her number, 42, will be displayed at all games, the league announced. "As we begin the 2022 season, we are keeping Brittney at the forefront of what we do through the game of basketball and in the community," WNBA Commissioner Cathy Engelbert said in a press release. "We continue to work on bringing Brittney home and are appreciative of the support the community has shown BG and her family during this extraordinarily challenging time."