Brittney Griner (15) runs to chase the ball during women’s basketball preliminary round game against Japan at the 2020 Summer Olympics.
United States’ Brittney Griner (15) runs to chase the ball during women’s basketball preliminary round game against Japan at the 2020 Summer Olympics, Friday, July 30, 2021, in Saitama, Japan. AP Photo/Eric Gay.

For months now, Houston native and WNBA star Brittney Griner has sat in a Russian jail cell with what amounts to a little more than a whisper about her situation from the entities she has represented in this country.

But that has started to shift this week with the State Department deeming the two-time Olympic gold medalist as being wrongfully detained in Russia. The WNBA, which kicks off its season this weekend, has stepped up its support with the league saying it will honor the seven-time all-star during the season with her initials and jersey number (42) on the sidelines of all 12 home courts this season. Griner, who stars as the center for Phoenix Mercury, will also be paid her full WNBA salary for the season.

In previous months, the WNBA, the players, and Griner’s family had been cautioned about making too much noise about her detainment as it could make her more of a political pawn in the current stare down between the U.S. and Russia.

“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.”

But the most impactful change may come from the position the U.S. government now has on her imprisonment. Her case is now being handled by the US Special Presidential Envoy for Hostages Affairs (SEPHA), which takes the diplomatic lead in coordinating the government’s efforts to gain the release of Americans wrongfully held in foreign countries.

With SEPHA’s involvement, the government now has greater flexibility in negotiating Griner’s freedom. Griner, who spends her offseason playing for a team in Russia, is still awaiting a hearing after she was arrested at the airport on claims by the Russian authorities that she was trying to smuggle drugs out of the country.

Her hearings have continued to be pushed back, but with the stepped-up government involvement, her release could come without Griner going through Russia’s legal process. She could be facing up to 10 years of imprisonment.

Griner’s detainment has been complicated due to the frosty relationship between the U.S. and Russia over Russia’s invasion of Ukraine earlier this year. But attention on Griner’s detainment received increased attention when the U.S. successfully secured the release of American and Marine veteran Trevor Reed from Russia last week.

“When it comes to our efforts to free Americans, the Special Presidential Envoy for Hostage Affairs Ambassador Carstens, he will go anywhere, he will talk to anyone if it means that we’re able to come home with an American, to reunite that American with her or his family,” State Department spokesperson Ned Price said to the press this week.

Apparently, getting Griner’s release has become more of a priority for the Biden Administration in recent days. White House press secretary Jen Psaki told the media this week that the decision to now classify Griner as wrongly detained was made in coordination with the hostage negotiator Roger Carstens and the State Department.

Griner’s agent, Lindsay Kagawa Colas, said in a statement, “Brittney has been detained for 75 days and our expectation is that the White House do whatever is necessary to bring her home.”

I've been with The Defender since August 2019. I'm a long-time sportswriter who has covered everything from college sports to the Texans and Rockets during my 16 years of living in the Houston market....