WNBA

Brittney Griner may have to fly private. The WNBA does not allow charters. What’s next?

The issue of charter flights has resurfaced 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 cannabis oil in her luggage, there are concerns about her trip.

Griner must 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 himself, away from the Phoenix Mercury? Would Mercury charter as a team, giving Phoenix a clear competitive advantage? Is it possible for all WNBA teams to charter in the name of justice?

It is a complicated matter.

After being wrongfully detained in Russia for nearly 10 months, there are security concerns surrounding Brittney Griner’s travel that could force the six-time WNBA All-Star to fly privately.

Who is calling for charters?

On 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 a part of a deal that helps with subsidizing charter. travel for the entire WNBA. I would contribute my NIL, post + production hours to ensure we all travel in a way that prioritizes player health + safety, which ultimately results in a better product. Who is with me?”

Her message drew support from many in the basketball community, including several WNBA players who responded with the emoji of a woman raising her hand to indicate that they wanted in as well. Mystic Elena Delle Donne responded: “I’m in! Whatever it takes.”

NBA players even joined in, with Memphis Grizzlies guard Ja Morant saying, “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 airlines. 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 somehow … I’m all ears. I have had many calls over the last year about this since we have been back in our 12 markets. So when people price it, 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 earlier comments to The New York Times, Engelbert said when he negotiated the 2020 CBA that players “weren’t asking for first class or charter travel. They were asking for more pay.”

But agents have trouble with the notion that it’s one or the other.

Jade-Li English of Klutch Sports Group, which represents several WNBA players, including two-time MVP A’ja Wilson, said for her clients, travel is the No. 1 issue and must be prioritized over everything else, including expansion.

“It’s very disappointing to see the league’s unwillingness to prioritize player health, safety and fairness,” English told USA TODAY Sports via text. “The NBA and WNBA are globally influential leagues. It’s hard for me to believe that they can’t come up with a single solution to meet the needs of these players. To suggest that these women have not voiced their consensus on this issue, is sincere.”

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 make sure 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 looking for ways to support members. Travel is a particular pain point that we seek to address each year with creative solutions and resources. We recognize this as a health and safety issue for all our members.”

How does WNBA travel work now?

Charter flights have been a divisive issue across the league for years. Despite being subsidized by the NBA, the WNBA uses commercial air travel. In the 2020 CBA, the league agreed to upgrade players to Economy Plus or Comfort seats to ensure extra legroom. Before the 2022 Finals, Engelbert announced that the league would charter the five-game championship series.

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But there are problems. Last season, the Los Angeles Sparks were stranded in Washington, DC, after a canceled flight, and forced to sleep in the airport, a failure documented by Nneka Ogwumike, the WNBPA president, via her Twitter account.

During last season’s WNBA quarterfinals, then-Connecticut Suns coach Curt Miller said the team was unable to practice before Game 3 in Dallas because, after a canceled commercial flight and last-minute scrambling for a charter, the plane couldn’t carry the weight of the Suns’ luggage, including their practice gear.

In 2018, a nightmare travel day for 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 the 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 full-time chartering. Several players voiced their frustration, with Mercury guard Skylar Diggins-Smith calling the news “shameful.”

Las Vegas Aces coach Becky Hammon, who spent many years as an NBA assistant, has been vocal about the need for the WNBA to fix its travel and charter flights for all teams.

Las Vegas Aces coach Becky Hammon, who spent many years as an NBA assistant, has been vocal about the need for the WNBA to fix its travel and charter flights for all teams.

Flying privately is not new to Mercury. After Phoenix won Game 5 of the 2021 semifinals over Las Vegas, Diana Taurasi chartered a private plane to return home to Phoenix and her wife, Penny Taylor, so Taurasi could be present for the birth of their second child, a girl named Island.

Aces coach Becky Hammon, a longtime NBA assistant, talked about travel during the 2022 All-Star Game.

“I know we’re locked into the CBA we’re in right now, but we’ve got to get these girls from A to B in the most efficient way 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 urging the Biden administration to do whatever was necessary to free Griner. On December 8, Biden announced that Griner was returning to the United States after a prisoner swap with notorious Russian arms dealer Viktor Bout. Her homecoming was greeted with celebration – and disgusting comments from the far right.

Critics have said that Griner, who has been an outspoken advocate for Black Lives Matter and the LGBTQ community, should not have been traded for a convicted felon known as the “Merchant of Death.” U.S. Senator Rick Scott (R-FL) called the trade “weak and disgusting“, and social media is flooded with voices condemning her release. One political analyst called the trade “a bad deal for America and the rest of the world.”

The late U.S. Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) was released from Vietnam after being held as a prisoner of war for more than five years.

The late U.S. Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) was released from Vietnam after being held as a prisoner of war for more than five years.

High-profile prisoner swaps or releases like Griner’s often involve a member of the military — think former US 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 US government does not provide security for civilians, which means Griner will likely have to pay for security out of pocket.

Liz Cathcart, the executive director of Hostage US, a non-profit organization that helps families of Americans held hostage or wrongfully detained, told USA TODAY Sports that most people who return after being held captive do not need security. American Trevor Reed, who was released in April after being wrongfully detained since 2019, has not needed private security and would not be able to fly privately or maintain 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_Quick

This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: Brittney Griner to charter. The WNBA doesn’t allow it. What now?

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