When Phoenix Mercury star Brittney Griner expressed her intention to return to court shortly after her release from Russian prison, reports quickly surfaced of her anticipated need for private flights due to security concerns.
WNBA commissioner Cathy Englebert said Griner’s travel plan would be “confidential” and the elusive travel arrangements appeared to be going well. That changed on Saturday, when she was harassed by what the league called a “social media character and provocateur” at Dallas/Fort Worth International Airport.
The league is currently investigating the incident, which occurred as the Mercury were heading to Indianapolis for a game on Sunday. A YouTube personality named Alex Stein posted a video clip on Twitter in which he appears to be shouting political questions at Griner as she walks with her teammates. It happened as a security guard tried to stop him from checking in and push him away.
Ahead of the team’s game against Indiana Fever on Sunday, Mercury head coach Vanessa Nygaard opened the pregame press conference by reading a statement from her phone regarding the episode:
“As everyone probably knows, yesterday there was an incident with BG and our team at the Dallas airport. No one should be subject to targeted harassment. I am grateful that our team and staff are physically safe. ok. Above all, I’m grateful that BG has been back here in the States for 185 days now. If the fact that she’s home is driving some people crazy, I think that obviously says more about them than it does. her,” she said.
“It’s also a reminder to all of us that the Mercury knows there are families whose loved ones aren’t home yet. And I’d like to urge everyone to visit bringourfamilieshome.org to learn more about wrongfully detained Americans and what we can do to support them and their families. As an organization, we will continue to bring their families to our games, speak their names and amplify their message. As a coach, what I want for our team is for us to be safe, and I want to be together. I want us to be safe and I want us to be together.
The Dallas game was another meaningful homecoming for Griner, who previously played for Baylor about two hours from Wings Stadium. She is also originally from Houston.
The awkward trip from Dallas to Indiana was only Mercury’s second road trip since Griner made his emotional return to the league on the road against the Los Angeles Sparks on May 19.
Mercury forward Brianna Turner was voice on Twitter after the incident, emphasizing the importance of player safety. On Sunday, she was asked if she felt the league had failed Griner and the team.
“I would say yesterday was a huge disappointment,” Turner said. “I mean, I don’t blame the league. Like obviously nobody could have predicted this, but at the same time I think more measures could have been in place. Absolutely.”
What were the league’s travel guidelines for BG?
On Sunday, Nygaard was asked why Griner was traveling with the team instead of taking a private flight.
“Phoenix as an organization, we follow the rules,” she said. “We were given travel guidelines and we followed the guidelines set out by the League, which we always do.”
His response comes after the league expanded its charter program this season to include private trips to back-to-back regular season and playoff games. Private travel outside of these circumstances remains prohibited and the league takes violations very seriously.
New York Liberty owner Joe Tsai was fined last year after piloting the team privately in 2021. The league reportedly even considered ending the franchise over the issue.
The WNBA said in a statement Saturday that it was working with the Mercury “and the BG team to ensure her safety during her trip, which included charter flights to WNBA games and security personnel assigned with her to any time”.
The league expanded on those comments by issuing a statement to Amy Bachman of the Wall Street Journal.
“We advised the Phoenix Mercury earlier this year to move forward with any arrangements they deem appropriate and necessary, including charter flights,” the league said.
But Griner’s agent, Lindsay Kagawa Colas, told Bachman the league has not approved charter flights for Griner for the entire 2023 season.
“They were there and harassed in the terminal because of a league plan that included a mix of charters and a number of commercial flights with failed security protocols,” she said.
Kagawa Colas is among those who have called on the league to lift restrictions on charter flights or allow team owners to fund private trips. Mercury owner Mat Ishbia is part of this group. So did Liberty star Breanna Stewart, who offered to fund the cause with her own NIL money.
In February, Engelbert reportedly told ESPN that charter flights for the regular season and playoffs would cost the league $25 million a year, a price she said the league could not afford.
Until something changes, the Mercury will work to continue operating under the team’s new standard.
“I think that’s the story of Phoenix. There’s always something going on,” Turner said. “But we know we have a 40 game schedule. We know we have 40 nights this summer where we have to come out strong, fast, aggressive no matter what happens outside.”
As Mercury and Griner took to the Indiana field in search of their second win of the season, she was would have was met with a resounding “WE LOVE YOU BG” from the crowd.