Here’s something I found interesting: the WNBA doesn’t allow its teams to charter flights. But the security of one of its most well-known players may become an issue regarding travel.
And that sparked a rant for me.
WNBA Travel: No Charters?
WNBA star and former Russian prison camp inmate Brittney Griner’s increased profile is bringing something to light: the WNBA apparently forbids its teams from regularly chartering planes to and from away games.
Because of security concerns centered around Ms. Griner, there’s talk she may have to fly privately between games — and not with her Phoenix Mercury teammates, who travel on regularly scheduled commercial flights.
Will that cause problems with her team? Or will the Mercury be an exception who can charter planes while other teams must still take regular commercial flights?
What Security Issues?
For those not caught up to speed: Ms. Griner is a WNBA player for the Phoenix Mercury. She’s an eight-time WNBA all-star; her team won the association’s world title in 2014.
She allegedly entered Russia with vape cartridges containing cannabis oil in February 2022. That’s apparently a big no-no in Russia. Ms. Griner was arrested and later charged with a drug crime. A Russian court sentenced her to 9 1/2 years imprisonment. Late last year, Ms. Griner was released from a Russian prison camp in a controversial prisoner swap that saw the United States return convicted arms dealer Viktor “Merchant of Death” Viktor Bout.
I’m not a security expert. I doubt there will be Russians staking out airports and commercial flights so that they can go after Ms. Griner. I don’t think many Russians lose sleep at night because Brittney Griner didn’t serve her entire sentence.
Instead, I wonder if the security concern centers around potential harassment she and her teammates may face in airports and — even worse — inside airplanes from Americans who have issues with her.
Ms. Griner is a polarizing figure to some people. She called on the WNBA to stop playing the national anthem before games. Some people are upset that imprisoned US Marine veteran Paul Whelan wasn’t included in the prisoner swap. (Mr. Whalen’s release allegedly wasn’t on the table in the first place.)
So, I can almost assure you there will be travelers not happy to see Ms. Griner, someone they view as unpatriotic, walking through an airport or on their flight — while a military veteran still sits in a Russian prison.
That, I think, is the issue.
Some might give her disapproving looks. She’s a professional athlete. I’m sure she’s experienced worse. But there are always a few outspoken people happy to say what’s on their minds — and show how “tough” they are. And that’s when things could turn ugly.
The issue also becomes a big distraction to the entire team.
It’s not uncommon for us to see sports teams — ranging from pee-wee leagues all the way up to college — when traveling. Teams tend to stand out because they wear the same travel apparel and/or are in a big group. Basketball teams (especially high school and college) are especially noticeable because at least a few of the players are especially tall.
Ms. Griner is 6’9.” She stood out before she played in the WNBA and became an international news story. She and her team will be pretty easy to spot in airports and on flights.
ESPN’s Ramona Shelbourne tweeted what I think is an informative and thought-provoking thread. Here are the first several posts:
If Griner were to fly privately the league would have to address whether her teammates on the Mercury would fly privately with her. That would raise the question of fairness for the other teams in the league, which are currently not allowed to fly privately.
— Ramona Shelburne (@ramonashelburne) January 23, 2023
So, Why Not Charter?
Not only do the NFL, NBA, and NHL charter planes (most often from Delta, United, or American). United States professional soccer teams fly charters (usually on Sun Country). Some colleges charter jets for their men’s and women’s basketball teams. (One reporter followed Gonzaga’s women’s team on a trip.) But the WNBA flies commercially and in coach? (Though as Ms. Schnell reports, the players union was able to get economy comfort seats built into their 2020 collective bargaining agreement. Lovely.)
What’s up with the WNBA?
USA Today’s Lindsay Schnell’s post indicates cost is a significant factor — and that’s not surprising. Everything comes down to money, doesn’t it? The WNBA commissioner said it would cost about $20 million a year to charter planes for the entire league.
Ms. Schnell also details a host of problems that came up as a result of teams not being able to charter. Sports Illustrated’s Howard Megdal wrote that the New York Liberty were fined a half-million dollars for chartering planes during the second half of a season.
The NBA — which owns a fleet of 757s managed and operated by Delta Air Lines — subsidizes the WNBA. Why can’t the NBA team up with Delta to get something done? I understand Delta doesn’t want to exactly give away its product (even for crazy SkyMiles prices! 😉 ). But considering the airline says, “We actively seek diversity, boldly pursue equity, and consciously promote inclusion to create a sense of belonging for all people,” maybe becoming the official airline of the WNBA would be something very noteworthy if they could get it done for a price reasonable to everyone.
Or maybe there’s an opportunity for another airline to come in and save the day with some new sponsors.
In any case, I think it’s unfortunate that WNBA players weren’t on charters in the first place. And if a team owner wants to pay for his or her team to charter, let them! Someone shouldn’t own a team unless they have the capital to treat their players and staff right.
What do you think? Please share your thoughts in the Comments section below. (And please stay on topic. This isn’t a forum about Brittney Griner’s incarceration in Russia or what led to it. Or how the situation was resolved between the United States and Russia. Or her political beliefs or personal life.)
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Griner pled guilty to drug smuggling.
Chris this is one of the more thought provoking posts I have read in many years. It is unfortunate that the events relating to Brittney Griner is what brings the issue of team travel disparity to light. Having disparity in salaries and various other areas is bad enough but to then require teams to travel in economy vs first class seating is beyond comprehension. But then also to fine a team for providing comfortable travel makes me wonder if a change in management is long over due. In fact requiring anyone to travel in economy is intentional abuse, specially if the are required to compete as athletes. Perhaps those making the rules need to follow the same rules.
It seems odd that the WNBA would ban charters. I wonder if the economics for some teams make charters prohibitive, and the WNBA bans charters for all teams so that the richer teams do not have an advantage?
I also wonder if the players get flight credit and are able to earn elite status? The upcoming season has 40 games, so that’s 20 away games. If all travel were on Delta and some of the flights were not direct, it should be pretty easy to get to Gold
I imagine the traveling party earns miles/points toward status. That’s a good question! I wonder how it works when it comes to upgrades…
I believe the ban primarily was focused on one owner (of the New York liberty as mentioned in the article). That ownership group is both significantly richer and willing to lose money to provide a better product, which other teams could not compete with so they banned it. WNBA salaries are already capped laughably low compared to Europe and (pre war) Russia, so something like charter flights could attract free agents to a team.
“allegedly”….dude, come on.