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The U.S. now says Russia is wrongfully detaining WNBA star Brittney Griner

Phoenix Mercury center Brittney Griner plays during game three of the 2021 WNBA semifinals at Desert Financial Arena in Tempe, Ariz., on Oct. 3, 2021.
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Phoenix Mercury center Brittney Griner plays during game three of the 2021 WNBA semifinals at Desert Financial Arena in Tempe, Ariz., on Oct. 3, 2021.

The Biden administration said on Tuesday that WNBA superstar Brittney Griner is being wrongfully detained by the Russian government — a shift in language that indicates the U.S. will work more aggressively to secure her release.

The State Department hadn't gone so far in its previous statements about Griner, who was arrested at an airport outside Moscow in February after authorities there reportedly found vape cartridges containing hashish oil in her luggage.

"The U.S. government will continue to undertake efforts to provide appropriate support to Ms. Griner," a State Department spokesperson said.

Griner, a center for the Phoenix Mercury, plays for the Russian team UMMC Ekaterinburg in the offseason. WNBA athletes frequently play overseas for teams that pay more than they earn in the U.S.

Her detention came just days before Russia launched its invasion of Ukraine, which garnered swift rebukes and punishing sanctions from the U.S., where Griner is a citizen. There are fears that Russian President Vladimir Putin could use Griner as a political prisoner to get something from the U.S.

In calling Griner wrongfully detained, the U.S. government will now negotiate for her return rather than wait for her case to wend its way through the Russian legal system, ESPN reported.

The outlet also said Griner's fellow players and supporters in Congress will be told they have her family's blessing to bring attention to her case.

The WNBA announced on Tuesday that it would honor the six-time All-Star by putting her initials and jersey number — 42 — on the sidelines of all 12 league courts.

"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."

The State Department spokesperson also confirmed that a U.S. official had had a consular visit with Griner on March 23 and said the administration would be pushing Russia to grant "regular, timely consular access" to all U.S. citizens detained in the country.

Last week Russia released U.S. citizen Trevor Reed, a former Marine, who had been held in the country for 985 days. In exchange the U.S. freed a Russian pilot convicted of smuggling drugs.

The State Department is still trying to secure the release of another Marine veteran held in Russia, Paul Whelan, who was accused of spying and is serving a 16-year sentence of hard labor.

NPR's Michele Kelemen contributed to this report.

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