ESPN report goes inside Brittney Griner's Russia detainment and her release

Mark Faller
Arizona Republic
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One year ago, Brittney Griner was freed from Russian captivity, released during a prisoner exchange with the U.S. for a notorious arms dealer, Viktor Bout.

Griner, the Phoenix Mercury star, had been arrested and convicted on drug charges for being in possession of two vape cartridges containing cannabis oil. She had them legally in the U.S. thanks to an Arizona prescription, but having them with her when she returned to Russia to rejoin her basketball team in that country put her in violation of Russian law.

Griner apparently was in the wrong place at the wrong time. Growing tension between Moscow and the West over Russia’s impending invasion of Ukraine had led to a spike in detainment and arrests of Americans trying to enter the country.

The story of Griner’s detainment, the public outcries to demand her release and her eventual homecoming to both her personal life and her career were well-documented over the past year. The details of how the U.S. was able to broker a deal for her release, and the behind-the-scenes work that led to a pro basketball player being swapped for an arms dealer, remained largely unknown. On Friday, though, published an extensive report by T.J. Quinn revealing how difficult the process was, including a look at the strategies involved and the diplomatic and political machinations between Washington and Moscow.

For the report, ESPN interviewed White House and State Department officials and other experts, friends and teammates close to Griner, the judge who sentenced Bout and even Bout himself. Griner, 33, and her wife, Cherelle, declined to be interviewed. Griner is working on a memoir and on Thursday it was announced that Griner had signed a deal with Disney to tell her story in a documentary from ESPN Films.

Some details from the ESPN report:

Americans were being targeted in Russia

State Department officials noticed in 2021 and 2022 an increase in harassment of Americans in Russia. They were being searched frequently, sometimes detained for days, fined and deported. Griner didn’t appear to be targeted specifically, according to the report, which had been speculated early in her saga because of her celebrity.

When Griner arrived, an official said, Russian authorities seemed to be fishing for an American. They didn't appear to be targeting anyone, the official said.  “I think she walked right into it," an anonymous State Department official told ESPN.

At first, Griner was not ‘wrongfully’ detained

Griner might have become a political pawn as things progressed last winter, but almost from the start, it was clear her detainment and arrest were appropriate under Russian law.

“At the time of Griner's arrest, her detention was anything but wrongful. She knew it, and Russian authorities knew it. Russia had not yet publicized her case or used it for propaganda,” ESPN reported. “A U.S. law enacted 14 months earlier, the Robert Levinson Hostage Recovery and Hostage-Taking Accountability Act, lays out criteria to determine whether someone is wrongfully detained. At that moment, Griner didn't meet any of them. That meant her case automatically fell to the State Department's consular affairs office, as would that of any American under arrest in another country.”

ESPN interviewed Alexander Boykov, the Moscow criminal defense attorney who represented Griner in Russia. He had been contacted by someone from the Russian basketball league team almost immediately after Griner was detained. He said she was treated appropriately and would have expected her to be released had the cartridges not tested positive for the illegal substance.

Return to Europe:Griner eager to wear Team USA uniform at 2024 Paris Olympics

Griner was ambivalent about returning to Russia

Like many WNBA players, Griner used the offseason to play overseas, making far more money than their WNBA salaries. But Griner, who had come back to the U.S. during a schedule break, was not sure she wanted to go back to her Russian team.

“Friends and teammates say she was ambivalent about returning to Russia,” ESPN’s Quinn wrote. “She had felt her mental health strained since 2020 when the WNBA season was played in a quarantine bubble, and she had wondered whether her $1.2 million Russian base salary — more than five times what she made in the WNBA — was worth it.”

Griner made a last-minute decision to return.

Phoenix Mercury center Brittney Griner kisses her wife Cherelle Griner after the home opener loss against the Chicago Sky at Footprint Center on May 21, 2023.

Griner’s teammates in Russia were in the dark

When Griner did not meet the Feb. 18 deadline to rejoin her Ekaterinburg team, her teammates were not alarmed. It was not unusual for players returning to Europe from the U.S. to be delayed. And, as ESPN reported, there didn’t seem to be any undue concern by non-Russians about the growing tension over Ukraine.

"We're all hearing it because we're reading American news and Western news in general, that Europeans are just as concerned, but whenever we brought it up to Russians, it was like, 'Oh, this is normal. They're always threatening this. You don't understand, we've been living like this for 10 years,'"  Courtney Vandersloot, a WNBA All-Star who was Griner's teammate in Russia for four seasons, told ESPN. "It's constantly, 'We're about to go to war.' They were always downplaying it."

Team officials originally told the players that Griner was late due to a visa issue. But on Feb. 23, as the team prepared for its first game, the players finally were told that Griner had been arrested on a drug charge. Players told ESPN they were left with the impression that Griner had been arrested for a significant quantity of hard drugs.

The next day, Russia invaded Ukraine. The foreign players were advised to leave the country, and had very mixed feelings about leaving Griner behind.

There also was tension between Russian and non-Russian personnel within the team.

"We were fighting against each other. I'm Russian, and I tried to explain why she really broke rules in Russia, why it is so difficult to do this," Ekaterinburg’s Yevgenia Belyakova said. "I tried to explain to them how it works in Russia. It was me against everybody."

"It wasn't just her — it was all the other Russians, even the translator," Vandersloot said. "It was almost like they were saying, 'These are the rules,' and we were like, 'We don't give a damn what the rules were.'"

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