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Russia is wrongfully detaining WNBA star Brittney Griner, U.S. officials say

A MARTINEZ, HOST:

An update, finally, on the situation involving WNBA star Brittney Griner. Since February, she's been in custody in Russia. Authorities there say she illegally brought hash oil into the country. But yesterday, the U.S. government said it now considers Griner to be wrongfully detained. NPR sports correspondent Tom Goldman is following this development. Tom, first, what does this move by the U.S. mean?

TOM GOLDMAN, BYLINE: Basically, that Brittney Griner's case is going to get more attention. Specifically - and I'm quoting a State Department official here - "the Office of the Special Presidential Envoy for Hostage Affairs will lead the interagency team for securing Brittney Griner's release," end quote. But now with the wrongful detention designation, the idea is that the U.S. government isn't going to wait for her case to advance through Russia's legal system. And she has a hearing in about two weeks. But instead, it'll be more proactive in negotiating her freedom.

MARTINEZ: All right. Any clue as to why this decision was made now?

GOLDMAN: Well, we don't know. And the State Department won't say why. The department constantly reviews cases of U.S. nationals detained abroad to determine if those detentions are wrongful. But the official I spoke to said they can't get into details of internal deliberations. In the absence of those details, of course, there's speculation, speculation that Griner's been detained since February on a fraudulent drug smuggling allegation. Someone inside the WNBA pointed out to me, Griner has played in Russia since 2014. She would know the risks in a country with tough drug laws. So if the allegation is fraudulent, why then would she be, as the State Department now says, wrongfully detained? It's not hard to believe a high-profile person like her could be used as a political pawn. She was taken into custody right before Russia's invasion of Ukraine. But again, the government not divulging.

MARTINEZ: Now, those close to Griner family and fellow players have taken a quiet approach and not raised a big fuss for fear that they might have an impact on any diplomacy going on. Will that change now that the U.S. government is saying that it'll be more aggressive with her case?

GOLDMAN: Yeah, you know, you're not seeing the floodgates open yet. I reached out to Griner's wife and agent. And the only response yesterday was a brief statement from the agent saying, Brittney has been detained for 75 days. And our expectation is that the White House do whatever is necessary to bring her home. More players, we assume, will start to speak freely. You know, it's been tough and strange for many of them. WNBA players have been very outspoken on social issues in recent years. The league did announce yesterday that with a new season starting Friday, all 12 WNBA arenas will feature on their floors Griner's initials and jersey number. So you know, there's a very visual and constant statement, at least, of the league's commitment to Griner.

MARTINEZ: Any hope at all that she could be coming home soon?

GOLDMAN: There's more hope today, for sure. Whether resolution is soon, we don't know. But if you put it in the context of last week's release of former Marine Trevor Reed, who'd been detained in Russia since 2019, it does show diplomacy still is possible, even though relations between the U.S. and Russia obviously have plummeted since the war started.

MARTINEZ: That's NPR sports correspondent Tom Goldman. Tom, thanks a lot.

GOLDMAN: You're welcome. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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A Martínez
A Martínez is one of the hosts of Morning Edition and Up First. He came to NPR in 2021 and is based out of NPR West.
Tom Goldman is NPR's sports correspondent. His reports can be heard throughout NPR's news programming, including Morning Edition and All Things Considered, and on NPR.org.