WNBA Commissioner Cathy Engelbert on Brittney Griner arrest

Commissioner Cathy Engelbert hopes to secure the athlete’s release before the WNBA's season begins in May.

WNBA Commissioner Cathy Engelbert is speaking out about efforts to secure Brittney Griner’s release from a Russian jail following her arrest on drug charges. 

The Phoenix Mercury star has been detained for more than three weeks. Her arrest came shortly before Russia’s invasion of Ukraine on Feb. 24.

“Our number-one priority is to get Brittney home safely as quickly as we can,” Englebert tells PEOPLE

Brittney Griner of the Phoenix Mercury during the 2021 WNBA semifinals at Footprint Center on Oct. 6, 2021, in Phoenix, Arizona. (Photo by Christian Petersen/Getty Images)

According to AP, Griner had come off a flight from New York when hashish oil cartridges were allegedly detected in her bag by a trained K-9 at a Moscow airport. Last week, Russian state television broadcasted an undated arrest photo of the basketball star, theGrio reported. 

Engelbert tells PEOPLE that the league has been working with Griner’s “agent, authorities, administration, strategist experts” in an effort to “get her home the quickest” way possible. 

Griner is a member of the Russian basketball UMMC Ekaterinburg, and like many WNBA players, she was playing overseas during the WNBA offseason where top players earn more than $1 million — nearly quadruple what they can make as a base salary in the WNBA,” per The Associated Press

But Engelbert rejects the notion that WNBA’s players opt to play overseas during the offseason due to low pay.

“What we did with the collective bargaining agreement in 2020 — that was only two years ago; people forget that — we tripled the top players’ pay,” Engelbert told PEOPLE. “Players have an opportunity to make between $500-650,000 at the top end including salaries.”

Engelbert says that “while pay equity is improving, many players are still opting for overseas play. “

“They want to play as much as they can while their bodies can still do that, so we’ll support it, but we’re working on models that will keep more of our players in the U.S. for longer periods of time in the offseason,” she adds. 

In February, customs officers at the Sheremetyevo International Airport allegedly found the vape cartridges containing hashish oil in Griner’s carry-on bag. The two-time Olympic basketball champion has been charged with smuggling “narcotic drugs” into the country. If convicted, she faces up to 10 years in prison.

Britney Griner in a booking photo released by Russian authorities

Texas Rep. Sheila Jackson Lee has been one of several Congress members to call on the Russian government to release Griner, theGrio reported. 

“Please, allow Miss Griner to leave. Allow her legal representation to handle her matters,” the Texas lawmaker said at a press conference Saturday before calling on Russia to release all foreign prisoners.  

“The one thing about Russian prisoners, when they are foreign [or] from foreign countries, the treatment is horrific,” Lee told the crowd. “Their lives are in jeopardy. Their health is in jeopardy. We don’t know whether they’ll make it. Their healthcare is not provided. They’re not eating right.” 

Griner is one of three US detainees currently held in Russia. The other two, former Marine Trevor Whelan and automotive executive Paul Whelan, were both convicted of crimes.

Engelbert hopes to secure the athlete’s release before the WNBA season begins in May.

“Anyone who meets Brittney, the first thing you walk away with is how kind she is,” says Englebert. “She’s just very low key and very humble. … She’s given strong support for the LGBTQ+ community, is an advocate [for social justice]. … No matter who you talk to, if they know Brittney, you get that kind of story about how iconic she is and what a role model she is, both on and off the court.”

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