HOUSTON - Houston native, Olympic gold medalist and WNBA All-Star Brittney Griner, 31, was arrested in Russia on a drug charge in early February.
We spoke with a political analyst about the timing of her arrest and how the tensions between the U.S. and Russia could play a role moving forward.
"There is the potential even if the original intention of the Russian government wasn’t to use her as a bargaining chip, she may now have become one," said Mark Jones, Professor of Political Science at Rice University.
The 31-year-old Nimitz High School graduate and Baylor University Women's Basketball star has been playing for a Russian women’s basketball team during the off-season since 2015. She was arrested after flying in from New York; the exact date of arrest is still unclear.
Russian officials say drug-sniffing dogs smelled something in her luggage and officials located vape pens containing cannabis oil.
"The Ukrainian resistance has surprised Putin and put him in a position where he really doesn’t know what to do next, and that becomes dangerous for any American detained because they become pawns in any attempt to negotiate with the United States," Jones said.
Jones also notes that Russia has detained U.S. citizens in the past to use as bargaining chips later on. Russian officials say Griner is being criminally charged for possession of drugs, which carries 10-20 years in their country.
"I think it highlights the risk that many Americans take when they travel to dictatorships like Russia and China," said Jones.
However, Jones says with Russia's economy already taking major blows it wouldn’t be in their best interest to hand down a harsh sentence in this case.
"The importance of WNBA players to the Russian women’s basketball league, the last thing they would want is U.S. women to decide they never want to play in Russia again because that’s one of their top sources of basketball players" Jones explained.
On Saturday Congresswoman Sheila Jackson-Lee spoke out on Griner’s behalf saying cannabis should be the least of Russia's worries.
"Please allow Ms. Griner to safely leave, allow her legal representation to handle her matters," said the Congresswoman.
The WNBA also released the following statement:
"We are aware of the situation in Russia concerning one of our members, Brittney Griner. Our utmost concern is BG's safety and well-being. On behalf of The 144, we send our love and support. We will continue to closely monitor and look forward to her return to the U.S."
Baylor University Women's Basketball also issued the following statement:
"The news of Brittney’s detainment is obviously very alarming, and our thoughts and prayers are with BG and her family. Right now, our foremost concern is for her safety and well-being during this difficult time in Russia and her eventual safe return to the United States."