WNBA learned Brittney Griner negotiations were ‘intensifying’ days before prisoner swap, commissioner says
WNBA star Brittney Griner was released from a Russian penal colony Thursday nearly 10 months after first being taken into custody following her arrest at a Moscow airport.
Talks of a potential prisoner swap involving Russian arms dealer Viktor Bout had remained at a stalemate for months, but WNBA Commissioner Cathy Engelbert revealed Thursday that the league had learned earlier this week that negotiations with the Kremlin were “intensifying.”
“We've known negotiations were intensifying and a solution was in sight,” Engelbert said during a press conference. “And I was personally emotional at today's events because you never know until the end.
BRITTNEY GRINER'S RELEASE FROM RUSSIA LEAVES WIFE CHERELLE ‘OVERWHELMED WITH EMOTIONS'
“These are geopolitically complex times at the moment, and so I'm overjoyed that BG will be reunited with her parents — her mom and dad. As a mom myself, I can't imagine the anguish they have been going through.”
Engelbert later said she had been in talks with the State Department and the Biden administration from the very beginning of Griner’s arrest but remained cautiously optimistic this week when learning of the real possibility that a deal was in the works.
“We kind of knew earlier this week negotiations were intensifying and that a solution might be on the table, and it was in sight. … But, again, recognizing with all my experience in the corporate world before coming here — very geopolitically complex and a deal is not done until it actually gets executed and transacted. So it wasn't until this morning that we really knew that Brittney would be actually on a plane coming to the United States.”
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Griner was arrested at Sheremetyevo Airport in Moscow Feb. 17 after Russian authorities said she had vape cartridges with cannabis oil inside her luggage. On Aug. 4, Griner was sentenced to nine years in prison after pleading guilty, arguing that she had been prescribed cannabis for her pain and inadvertently packed it. Her sentence was upheld in October, and she was later transferred to a penal colony.
Engelbert repeatedly thanked the Biden administration and the State Department for their roles in negotiating Griner’s release but also extended her gratitude to the NBA and some of its top players.
“We needed all the resources we [could get]. The NBA players have huge brands, huge followings, not just here in the United States, but globally. And it was really important to have their advocacy,” Engelbert said.
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Griner’s arrest has raised concerns for other WNBA players who play overseas in the offseason to supplement their salaries. Engelbert highlighted the league’s development over the last few years aimed at providing more opportunities for players in the U.S. but noted that the decision to play internationally is ultimately at the players' discretion.
“I've been a big advocate for letting the players do what they want to do with their offseason,” Engelbert said. “This is their time to figure out what they want to do. But we're also chipping away at the economic model and growing the league.
“Our players are going to do what's best for them in consultation with their families and their agents. And we're certainly here to help them think through the security risks and things like that. But I think you're seeing players take advantage of other opportunities, and we're certainly going to provide them more opportunities to do things with the league in the offseason and keep the momentum going around the great play that they put on the court every year.”
Fox News’ Ryan Gaydos contributed to this report.