Russia’s Federal Customs Service said Saturday its officials arrested an American basketball player after finding vape cartridges containing hash oil in her luggage at Sheremetyevo airport near Moscow.
Customs said in a statement that the player had won two Olympic gold medals with the United States, but did not release the player’s name. Russian news agency TASS, citing a law enforcement source, identified the player as Brittney Griner, a seven-time WNBA All-Star center for the Phoenix Mercury. Griner, 31, won gold medals with the United States women’s national basketball team in 2021 and 2016.
Customs released video of a traveler at the airport who appeared to be Griner, wearing a mask and a black sweatshirt, going through security. The video showed an individual taking a package out of the traveler’s bag.
According to the statement, a criminal case has been opened for large-scale drug transport, which carries a sentence of up to 10 years behind bars in Russia. The basketball player was taken into custody while the investigation was ongoing, officials said.
In a statement, the Mercury said: “We are aware of and closely monitoring the situation with Brittney Griner in Russia. We remain in constant contact with his family, his representation, the WNBA and the NBA. We love and support Brittney and at this time our primary concern is her safety, physical and mental health, and her safe return home.
The WNBA said in a statement that Griner “has the full support of the WNBA and our top priority is his speedy and safe return to the United States.”
The detention comes amid escalating conflict created by Russia’s invasion of Ukraine and high tensions between Russia and the United States. In recent years, Russia has detained and sentenced US citizens on what US officials often call trumped up charges. The arrest of a high-profile American could be seen as an attempt by Russia to create leverage for a possible prisoner swap with the US government or a reduction in invasion-related sanctions.
Many WNBA players compete in Russia, where salaries are more lucrative, during the American League‘s offseason. Griner played for Russian team UMMC Ekaterinburg for several years.
Some American players began considering leaving Russia after the country invaded Ukraine, and a WNBA spokeswoman said Saturday that all WNBA players except Griner were outside Russia and Ukraine.