By Aya Elamroussi, CNN
After being imprisoned in Russia for nearly 10 months, WNBA star Brittney Griner’s safe return to the US on Friday was marked by a stop at a Texas military medical facility for a routine evaluation, the US State Department said.
Griner arrived at Brooke Army Medical Center in San Antonio, Texas, early Friday — the next leg of a journey back on American soil following what the US government described as wrongful detainment that had often left her family and loved ones with little information or consolation.
“We are now focused on ensuring that Brittney and her family’s well-being are prioritized and that all available assistance can be offered to them through an appropriate manner,” US State Department principal deputy spokesperson Vedant Patel said at a news briefing Friday.
Officials have not specified for how long Griner will be at the medical center, but the basketball star was “in good spirits” and “incredibly gracious” following her release, National Security Council spokesperson John Kirby told CNN.
Griner, who was arrested at a Moscow airport in February on drug charges and later sentenced to 9 years in prison, was released as part of a prisoner exchange between the US and Russia for notorious convicted arms dealer Viktor Bout.
The swap, which took months to negotiate and has drawn mixed reaction in the US for not also including fellow detainee Paul Whelan, occurred at an airport tarmac in Abu Dhabi on Thursday.
Shortly after the swap was successfully completed, US officials connected Griner to her family. That call “was as moving as it was unforgettable” to hear Griner speak on the phone with her wife, Cherelle, who was present for an Oval Office meeting, Secretary of State Tony Blinken said.
“Their strength, their resilience, has been nothing but short of inspiring,” Blinken said.
Texas Democratic Congresswoman Sheila Jackson Lee told CNN Griner was able to call her father from the plane.
“They all want to see her and might even want to see her back here at home, but I know that was a happy phone reunion to hear his daughter’s voice,” she said.
Jackson Lee — who represents the 18th Congressional District of Texas including Griner’s hometown of Houston — said aspects of the two-time Olympian’s current welfare “have to be reviewed.”
“We hear that she has spoken to her family members here, she sounded good, looking forward to seeing them, and we also know that she walked on her own capabilities both in terms of the swap and then when she landed in San Antonio.”
In a statement, Griner’s family thanked President Joe Biden and the administration, along with former New Mexico Gov. Bill Richardson, whose Richardson Center worked on behalf of the family to help ensure Griner’s release and is trying to follow suit for Whelan.
“We sincerely thank you all for the kind words, thoughts and prayers — including Paul and the Whelan family who have been generous with their support for Brittney and our family during what we know is a heartbreaking time,” the statement said.
“We pray for Paul and for the swift and safe return of all wrongfully-detained Americans.”
Griner’s wife, Cherelle Griner, issued an updated statement on her Instagram page on Saturday afternoon, thanking the many people she said supported her and Brittney during Griner’s imprisonment in Russia.
As she did in her statement with President Biden on Thursday, Cherelle also called for Paul Whelan and other Americans held overseas to be brought home.
“Yesterday my heart was made whole thanks to the collective efforts of MANY! I’m humbled by their hearts. To care for another, a stranger to some, a friend to some— is humanity in its purest form!” Griner’s wife wrote.
“As BG and I start our journey to heal our minds, body, and spirits— I wanted to personally say thank you to some of the hands; seen and unseen, that helped make it possible for me to see my wife again!” her statement continued.
Talks continue on bringing another American home
While many are celebrating Griner’s return home — seen as a diplomatic win between two of the world’s largest nations at fierce odds over Russia’s invasion of Ukraine — the fate of Whelan’s release remains unclear.
Whelan — a US, Irish, British and Canadian citizen — is currently imprisoned in a Russian penal colony after he was arrested in December 2018 on espionage charges, which he has denied. He was sentenced to 16 years in prison. He, like Griner, had been declared wrongfully detained by US officials.
The US tried to persuade Russia to swap both Griner and Whelan for arms dealer Bout, but Russian officials would not budge on the matter, with Russia saying both of the Americans’ cases were handled differently based on the charges each of them faced.
In an interview with CNN, Whelan expressed his disappointment in how the negotiations went.
“This is a precarious situation that needs to be resolved quickly,” Whelan told CNN in a phone interview. “I would hope that (Biden) and his administration would do everything they could to get me home, regardless of the price they might have to pay at this point.”
Biden insisted that his administration continues its efforts to bring Whelan home.
“This was not a choice of which American to bring home,” Biden said Thursday. “Sadly, for totally illegitimate reasons, Russia is treating Paul’s case differently than Brittney’s. And while we have not yet succeeded in securing Paul’s release, we are not giving up. We will never give up.”
Paul Whelan’s sister, Elizabeth Whelan, told CNN’s Erin Burnett on Friday that the public discussion surrounding a potential swap has “been very difficult for my family to hear,” adding she believes her brother is being “discussed as if his only value was what we would have to give up for him.”
Asked about her family’s discussions with the US government regarding her brother’s imprisonment, Elizabeth Whelan said, “I think we’ve made it pretty clear — that as far as I’m concerned, at least — my brother is worth more, has a greater value than any Russian criminal.”
Women athlete pay disparity scrutinized
Griner’s detention and subsequent return home has once again spotlighted the pay disparity women athletes face in the US — which has pushed WNBA players to go overseas to earn more during their off-seasons, including countries such as Russia.
WNBA Commissioner Cathy Engelbert told CNN Friday evening that although efforts have been ongoing to increase the pay, there’s still a long way to go.
“For too long women sports have been undervalued, under-invested in,” said Engelbert, who noted that less than 1% of all corporate sponsorship funding goes to women’s sports.
Engelbert also pointed out that the WNBA is a fairly young sports league, which was established in 1996. Still, she added the organization is working on a three-to-five-year plan to drive up players’ pay.
“We’re chipping away as we start to grow and build real momentum,” she said.
And as those changes are slowly underway, Engelbert said she believes players will continue to play overseas, especially because the average tenure in the WNBA is about five years.
“We’re never going to preclude them from making more money in leagues outside the US during our offseason. What we want is them to come and play at the highest level once they’re back here at home.”
Angel McCoughtry, a friend of Griner’s who also played in the Olympics and WNBA, played for a Russian club as well during her offseason and acknowledged that she earned more there. But she also said she would not return considering how Griner was treated.
“Russia was a place that paid us a lot of money for our talent, more than being here in our own country,” McCoughtry told CNN on Friday. “It’s sad to say I’m wealthy not because of the WNBA, but my years overseas. I would make my WNBA salary in one month overseas — my whole salary”
McCoughtry said it’s possible for WNBA players to earn more if they receive the level of promotion their male counterparts do.
“If you promote the women just like the men, people will watch,” McCoughtry said. “Once we get the brand partnerships behind us and promoting us and people know who we are, they’ll come to watch. It will grow.”
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CNN’s Kylie Atwood, Tina Burnside, Rosalina Nieves, Rosa Flores, Laura Coates, Raja Razek, Andrew Millman, Travis Caldwell, Steve Almasy, Jennifer Hansler, Jeremy Herb, MJ Lee and Kevin Liptak contributed to this report.