Brittney Griner's return could be the unlikely catalyst that forces the WNBA to relent on its most contentious policy
- WNBA free agency is underway, with teams receiving the green light to recruit stars as of this weekend.
- Top free agent Breanna Stewart has reportedly made charter flights a key issue for teams wooing her.
Charter flights — or, rather, the lack thereof — have been at the center of several recent conflicts between the WNBA and its players.
Teams have long traveled from game to game on commercial flights, a reality that's resulted in countless nightmarish trips and endless hours crammed into coach for the world's best basketball players each season. But now, after several years at an impasse, the league may finally be making headway on the issue thanks to an unlikely catalyst: Brittney Griner.
"BG's return makes the conversation about charters more acute," Erin Kane, an Excel Sports Management agent who represents several WNBA All-Stars, told Insider. "It's always been a player health-and-safety issue. BG's situation brings it to another level.
"The truth is that this has been a literal pain point for a long time," she added.
The 6-foot-9 Phoenix Mercury superstar famously spent the better part of 2022 wrongfully detained in Russia after carrying vape pens containing cannabis oil into the country. She returned home in December after President Joe Biden agreed to a prisoner exchange to secure her release, and shortly thereafter, Griner confirmed her intention to return to the WNBA for the 2023 season.
Facilitating Griner's comeback may involve contradicting the league's policy on charter flights
Griner's return to the league may not be as simple as lacing up her size-17 sneakers and stepping onto the hardwood: According to reporting from ESPN's Ramona Shelburne, Griner's heightened security concerns have many around the league speculating that she — and, potentially, her Mercury teammates — will need to fly private to and from games.
Though she's technically a free agent, Griner has publicly expressed her desire to re-sign with Phoenix. Both sides need to wait until February to make her Mercury return official, but in the interim, Phoenix's top brass is taking all possible measures to ensure Griner won't have to put herself in harm's way to play.
"Her celebrity has certainly changed, and the reasons for it have changed, and we are all acutely aware of some of the things that have been said about her," Mercury President Vince Kozar told Insider. "We are acutely aware of the way that her return has been used to try and further polarize people... and we understand that people have done that through the lens of BG's identity, which is as a woman, it's as a Black woman, and it's as a gay Black woman.
"None of that is lost on us, and we understand that words oftentimes can be a precursor to violence," he continued. "We take all of that incredibly seriously. We understand and all of the people around her understand that it is our joint responsibility to ensure that we are approaching this from the perspective and with the due gravity that it requires.
"It's safe to say that as we consider all of those things, her safety as we travel is a top priority," Kozar added.
But if the most secure course of action involves Griner flying private to games, the WNBA faces a considerable dilemma. While the league is committed to ensuring the star's safety as she reintegrates with have to relent on its strict travel policies.
The 2020 WNBA Collective Bargaining Agreement requires that "all air travel provided by [teams]" include "premium economy (or similar enhanced coach fare)" seats for players, but does not account for accommodations beyond commercial flights. As such, the WNBA has forbidden individual franchises from chartering flights in the past for fear of disrupting parity in the league, and has even gone as far as punishing teams that do not comply.
Just last year, the league slapped the New York Liberty with a historic $500,000 fine after billionaire franchise owner Joe Tsai flew his team private during the second half of the season. And as recently as last summer, WNBA Commissioner Cathy Engelbert said the estimated $20+ million price tag of charter flights could "jeopardize the financial health of the league."
"Charter for the WNBA has been debated and essentially banned as a 'competitive advantage,' yet most other free agency considerations are not regulated by that measure," Wasserman Executive Vice President Lindsay Kagawa Colas, who represents Griner as well as countless other WNBA superstars, told Insider. "Even in the NBA, there is a wide range of travel quality between team-owned planes vs. charter program subscribers.
"So when you zoom out, it's logic that is hard to follow," she added.
But Griner's situation, and the resulting concerns regarding fairness across the league, may provide the impetus the league needs to reconsider what Colas calls "a regressive approach to the WNBA as a business."
Breanna Stewart is using her free agency frenzy to spotlight the WNBA's travel woes
One of the league's top free agents — whom Colas also represents — has taken the issue into her own hands. Breanna Stewart, the four-time All-WNBA first teamer widely considered one of the greatest talents the league has ever seen, is publicly factoring flights into her looming and closely watched free agency decision.
In addition to her previous franchise — the Seattle Storm — the two-time WNBA champion and two-time finals MVP is reportedly considering the Liberty, Minnesota Lynx, and Washington Mystics as potential landing spots. Each of those teams is owned by a billionaire who can undoubtedly afford the lofty price tag required to hire a private jet for the season.
The Liberty and Lynx governors have both even publicly come out in support of charter flights for the league — a stance surely not lost on Stewart. Several additional franchise owners around the WNBA have reached similar conclusions, though some have voiced their support louder than others.
"Most owners and players are in sync and want to be empowered to do what is right for them," Colas said, adding that "owners who are not willing to invest should not be holding back a league with owners, prospective owners, and players who are."
But enabling each team to travel as it sees fit would require a vote from the WNBA's Board of Governors, and as recently as September 2021, such a measure did not receive majority support. Players were outraged after Howard Megdal's bombshell report revealed that owners had turned down a plan Tsai proposed that would cover charter flights across the league for a full three years out of fear that the athletes would "get used to" the treatment.
The WNBA denies that such a vote ever took place:
"At no point was there a New York Liberty proposal for the WNBA Board of Governors to consider offering three-years-worth of charter flights for WNBA teams," a league statement read. "It was agreed that the Liberty would explore opportunities regarding charter flights and present it to the Board. To date, that has not happened."
Sports Illustrated, the outlet that originally released the report, insists they've "confirmed this took place from a source who heard the exchange directly."
Only a year and a half later, there's reason to believe the tides are turning in the players' favor
Between the court of public opinion, Griner's increased security needs, Stewart's free agency sweepstakes, and players' overwhelming demands for change, team owners are facing more pressure than ever to back the charter flight cause.
And Stewart's even willing to back the campaign herself. The 2018 MVP took to Twitter to announce that she's prepared to help "subsidize charter travel for the entire WNBA" by offering her "NIL, posts + production hours."
"Who's with me?" she added.
—Breanna Stewart (@breannastewart) January 22, 2023
Plenty of high-profile stars jumped to get on board. Several current WNBA players, including Nneka and Chiney Ogwumike, Elena Delle Donne, Napheesa Collier, Alysha Clark, Erica Wheeler, Kahleah Copper, and Natalie Achonwa, offered their support in the comments.
NBA All-Star Ja Morant, UConn Huskies superstar Paige Bueckers, and retired WNBA great Sue Bird all chimed in with messages of encouragement, too.
The exercise left little doubt that other players are ready to follow Stewart's lead, posing a significant threat to team owners; if you don't build it, they won't come.
Regardless of whether the WNBA reaches an agreement on charters in the immediate future, the league's stars — including Stewart, who is eligible to sign with a team starting February 1 — have every incentive to sign with franchises investing in the betterment of their individual teams and the league as a whole.
"Every player wants to play for an organization that treats them well; it's that simple," Kane said. "And let's be clear that most of what the players are asking for, including charter travel, are things that improve quality of play and the product the league is able to put on the court every night.
"These women are the best in the world," she added. "They should be treated that way. It needs to change."
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