The issue of charter flights has risen again in the WNBA, but not for the reason many people might guess.
On the heels of Brittney Griner’s release from Russia, where the six-time WNBA All-Star was detained for nearly 10 months after being found guilty of carrying hash oil in her luggage, there are concerns about her travel.
Griner will need to fly privately due to security concerns, according to reports, which could create problems across the league. Would the recognizable, 6-foot-9 center fly by herself, away from the Phoenix Mercury? Would the Mercury charter as a team, giving Phoenix a clear competitive advantage? Is it possible for all WNBA teams to charter in the name of fairness?
It’s a complicated issue.
Who’s calling for charters?
Sunday afternoon, seven-year veteran Breanna Stewart, the highest profile free agent this offseason who is reportedly entertaining offers to either stay in Seattle or join the New York Liberty, tweeted, “I would love to be part of a deal that helps subsidize charter travel for the entire WNBA. I would contribute my NIL, posts + production hrs to ensure we all travel in a way that prioritizes player health + safety, which ultimately results in a better product. Who’s with me?”
Her message drew support from many in the basketball community, including numerous WNBA players who replied with the emoji of a woman raising her hand to imply that they’d chip in, too. Mystics forward Elena Delle Donne responded, “I’m in! Whatever it takes.”
NBA players even chimed in, with Memphis Grizzlies guard Ja Morant, who said, “Count me in.”
But WNBA commissioner Cathy Engelbert has shot down the idea, previously telling ESPN, “We’ve asked all the major airlines. We’ve asked charter companies. I’ve been working on this since the moment I came into the league. Without sponsors stepping up, it’s just not in the cards right now.
“If we could get it sponsored or funded in some way … I’m all ears. I’ve gotten lots of calls over the past year about this since we’ve been back in our 12 markets. Then when people price it out, you never hear from them again.”
Engelbert has estimated that chartering the entire season for all 12 teams would cost more than $20 million. In previous comments to The New York Times, Engelbert said when negotiating the 2020 CBA, players “didn’t ask for first-class or charter travel. They asked for more pay.”
But agents take issue with the notion that it’s one or the other.
Jade-Li English of Klutch Sports Group, who represent numerous WNBA players including two-time MVP A’ja Wilson, said for her clients, travel is the No. 1 issue, and needs to be prioritized over everything else, including expansion.
“It’s very disappointing to see the league being unwilling to prioritize player health, safety and equity,” English told USA TODAY Sports via text message. “The NBA and the WNBA are globally influential leagues. It’s hard for me to believe they cannot come up with a single solution to meet these players’ needs. To suggest that these women have not made their consensus on this issue known is disingenuous.”
Engelbert and the WNBA declined to comment to USA TODAY Sports for this story, though the league is expected to work with Griner and her representatives to ensure she is safe.
The WNBPA did not answer specific questions about Griner, but told USA TODAY Sports in a statement that the players association is “always seeking ways to support the members. Travel is a particular pain point that we look to address every year with creative solutions and resources. We recognize this as a health and safety issue for all of our members.”
How does WNBA travel work now?
Charter flights have been a divisive topic across the league for years. The WNBA, despite being subsidized by the NBA, uses commercial air travel. In the 2020 CBA, the league agreed to upgrade players to Economy Plus or Comfort seats, to ensure extra leg room. Before the 2022 finals, Engelbert announced that the league would charter during the five-game championship series.
But there are problems. Last season, the Los Angeles Sparks were stranded in Washington, D.C., after a canceled flight, and forced to sleep in the airport, a fiasco documented by Nneka Ogwumike, the WNBPA president, via her Twitter account.
During last season’s WNBA quarterfinals, then-Connecticut Sun coach Curt Miller said the team wasn’t able to practice before Game 3 at Dallas because after a canceled commercial flight and last-minute scramble for a charter, the plane could not bear the weight of the Suns’ luggage, including their practice gear.
In 2018, a nightmare travel day for the Las Vegas Aces where they were delayed almost a full 24 hours resulted in a game being canceled against the Washington Mystics.
In March 2022, Sports Illustrated revealed that New York Liberty owner Joe Tsai was fined a whopping $500,000 when the league discovered he had chartered the second half of the season. Sports Illustrated also reported that at a September 2021 WNBA Board of Governors meeting, the majority of the league voted against chartering full-time. Multiple players voiced their frustration, with Mercury guard Skylar Diggins-Smith calling the news “disgraceful.”
Flying private isn’t new for the Mercury. After Phoenix won Game 5 of the 2021 semifinals over Las Vegas, Diana Taurasi chartered a private plane to get home to Phoenix and her wife, Penny Taylor, so Taurasi could be present for the birth of their second child, a girl named Isla.
Aces coach Becky Hammon, a longtime NBA assistant, vented about travel during the 2022 All-Star game.
“I know we’re locked into the CBA we’re in right now, but we gotta get these girls from A to B in the most efficient way possible, because it directly affects the product on the floor that you’re selling to the public,” Hammon said.
How will security work for Griner?
The WNBA spent months calling for the Biden Administration to do whatever necessary to free Griner. On Dec. 8, Biden announced that Griner was on her way home to the U.S. after a prisoner swap for notorious Russian arms dealer Viktor Bout. Her homecoming was met with celebration — and vile comments from the far right.
Critics have said Griner, who has been an outspoken advocate for Black Lives Matter and the LGBTQ community, should not have been traded for a convicted criminal known as the “Merchant of Death.” U.S. Senator Rick Scott (R-FL) called the trade “weak and disgusting,” and social media is awash with voices decrying her release. One political analyst called the trade “a bad deal for America and the rest of the world.”
High-profile prisoner swaps or releases like Griner’s often involve a member of the military — think former U.S. Senator John McCain, who was a prisoner of war in Vietnam for more than five years, or Army soldier Bowe Bergdahl, who was held captive by the Taliban from 2009-2014. Typically, the U.S. government does not provide security for civilians, which means Griner is likely to have to pay for security out of pocket.
Liz Cathcart, the executive director of Hostage US, a non-profit that helps families of Americans held hostage or wrongfully detained, told USA TODAY Sports that most people who return after being held captive don’t need security. American Trevor Reed, who was released in April after being wrongfully detained since 2019, has not needed private security, and wouldn’t have the option of flying private or retaining private security given the cost.
Griner’s agent, Lindsay Colas of Wasserman, did not respond to multiple requests for comment.
Follow Lindsay Schnell on Twitter @Lindsay_Schnell