The WNBA began a new season on May 6, but one major off-the-court storyline looms large over the 2022 campaign.
Phoenix Mercury star Brittney Griner has been detained in Russia for months, and it is unclear when she will be able to return to the United States. The 31-year-old, who has played for UMMC Ekaterinburg in the Russian Premier League during the WNBA offseason, was arrested in February after the Russian Federal Customs Service claimed it found hashish oil in her luggage at an airport near Moscow.
A criminal case has been opened into the "large-scale transportation of drugs," and if Griner is convicted, she could face up to 10 years in prison.
What is Griner's status? And how has the U.S. government approached her detainment amid Russia's invasion of Ukraine?
Here's how her legal situation has played out so far.
Brittney Griner timeline: Her detainment in Russia and what followed
March 5 — The New York Times and Russian News agency TASS first reported that Griner was detained after customs service officials said they found vape cartridges containing hashish oil in her luggage at the Sheremetyevo airport. The customs service also released a video of an individual at the airport who appears to be Griner going through security.
Russian state TV showed a photo of Griner as part of a segment that aired on March 5. The photo was reportedly taken at a Russian police station.
Russian state TV has released a photo of WNBA star Brittney Griner, who was arrested on drug charges in the country after Russian officials say cannabis oil was found in her luggage. CNN's @RosaFlores has the story. pic.twitter.com/SzB9MSSQfY— CNN (@CNN) March 8, 2022
The WNBA released a statement saying the league would continue to support Griner and its top priority was "her swift and safe return to the United States." Griner's wife, Cherelle, also released a statement thanking fans for their "prayers and support" and asking for privacy as she worked on "getting my wife home safely."
A league spokesperson told The New York Times that all WNBA players other than Griner were out of Russia and Ukraine.
March 6 — United States Secretary of State Antony Blinken addressed Griner's arrest during a press conference.
"There's only so much I can say given the privacy considerations at this point," Blinken said. "Let me just say more generally, whenever an American is detained anywhere in the world, we of course stand ready to provide every possible assistance, and that includes in Russia, as you know, and we've talked about this for a long time when we talk about seeking the release of Paul Whelan and Trevor Reed for some time, both of whom are unjustly detained.
"We have an embassy team that's working on the cases of other Americans who are detained in Russia. We're doing everything we can to see to it that their rights are upheld and respected."
March 17 —A TASS report indicated that Griner's detention in Russia had been extended until May 19, allowing prosecutors to continue investigating her case.
"The court granted the petition of the investigation and extended the term of U.S. citizen Griner's detention until May 19," a Moscow court said, per TASS.
A U.S. State Department spokesperson said the department had been doing "everything we can" to support Griner but did not offer additional details because of privacy concerns. Griner and her representatives had not commented on how she would plead to the charges.
March 23 —After pushing for access to Griner, U.S. consular officials were able to visit her in Russia for the first time.
"A U.S. consular official was able to verify that she is doing as well as can be expected," a U.S. State Department spokesperson said. "We'll continue to work closely with her legal team and her broader network."
Griner had reportedly been able to communicate with her family through her attorneys.
April 27 —The Biden administration announced that former Marine Trevor Reed, who had been held in Russia since 2019, was released from custody as part of a prisoner exchange. Reed was accused of assaulting a police officer and sentenced to nine years in prison in 2020, though he has maintained his innocence.
"The negotiations that allowed us to bring Trevor home required difficult decisions that I do not take lightly," President Joe Biden said in a statement. "His safe return is a testament to the priority my Administration places on bringing home Americans held hostage and wrongfully detained abroad."
ESPN reported that, while there are notable differences between the two cases, Griner's team was encouraged by Reed's release. Cherelle released a statement saying she was "overflowing with joy" for Reed's family.
"I do not personally know them, but I know the pain of having your loved one detained in a foreign country," Cherelle said in the statement. "That level of pain is constant and can only be remedied by a safe return home."
May 3 — ESPN reported that the U.S. government now considers Griner to be "wrongfully detained" by the Russian government. That means the U.S. government will seek to negotiate her return rather than let her legal case play out.
"Brittney has been detained for 75 days and our expectation is that the White House do whatever is necessary to bring her home," Griner's agent, Lindsay Kagawa Colas, said in a statement to ESPN.
A State Department official told ESPN that Griner is not considered a hostage, as that term falls under a different legal classification than wrongful detainee.
Additionally, the WNBA announced that it will feature Griner's initials and jersey number (No. 42) on the sideline of all WNBA courts this season. The league also granted the Mercury roster and salary cap relief so they can carry a replacement player. Griner will continue to be paid her full salary ($227,900).
"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 statement. "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."
May 13 — Griner's lawyer, Alexander Boykov, told The Associated Press that Griner's detention had been extended by one month. ESPN reported that a judge had denied a request to move Griner to home detention.
"We did not receive any complaints about the detention conditions from our client," Boykov said.