Feature image of Brittney Griner by Christian Petersen/Getty Images
A heartwarming Texas homecoming for Brittney Griner — where the homegrown star was greeted with cheers by her alma mater during the Phoenix Mercury’s game against the Dallas Wings — turned sour on Saturday morning when the perennial WNBA All-Star and her Phoenix Mercury teammates were accosted by a right-wing provocateur at Dallas-Fort Worth International Airport. The team escaped, shaken but unscathed, and made the trip to Indianapolis for their Sunday afternoon match-up with the Indiana Fever.
“Player safety while traveling should be at the forefront,” tweeted Mercury forward Brianna Turner. “People following with cameras saying wild remarks is never acceptable. Excessive harassment. Our team nervously huddled in a corner unsure how to move about. We demand better.”
Surely, the Mercury — and Brittney Griner most of all — deserve better and while the conversation about what happened quickly pivoted to being about security and charter flights, it’s worth pausing and asking: How did the Mercury and the WNBA allow this to happen? Because, given the media attention that’s been swirling around Griner since her return home, this was completely predictable.
How was the HIGH possibly of this happening not taken into consideration before the season and addressed accordingly?? https://t.co/7LJV6IVpwt
— Sydney Colson (@SydJColson) June 10, 2023
“Everyone who was was paying attention knew this would happen. We could have and should have been more proactive,” the WNBA Players Association acknowledged in their statement.
But the league assured media and its fans that they were being proactive. In her annual pre-draft press conference, WNBA Commissioner Cathy Engelbert told reporters that the league had been working with security experts, the Phoenix Mercury, and Griner’s team (presumably her agent, Lindsay Kagawa Colas) to develop a security plan. The details of the security plan weren’t released publicly for obvious reasons but, in response to the incident in Dallas, the league claimed that it included charter flights for Griner — an exception to the league’s travel policies — and round-the-clock security.
The safety of Brittney Griner and all WNBA players is our top priority. Prior to the season, the WNBA worked together with the Phoenix Mercury and BG’s team to ensure her safety during her travel, which included charter flights for WNBA games and assigned security personnel with her at all times. We remain steadfastly committed to the highest standards of security for players.
But Kagawa Colas pushed back on that characterization, telling the Wall Street Journal that BG and her teammates were subject to harassment “because of a league plan that included a mix of charter and a select number of commercial flights with security protocols that failed.” In a follow-up statement to the WSJ, the league seemed to backtrack from their original statement. They hadn’t made any arrangements themselves, they’d simply given permission to the Mercury to “move ahead with any arrangements they felt were appropriate and needed including charter flights.”
So what kept the Mercury from moving ahead? The team hasn’t specified. In their statement the team reiterated its support for seemingly everybody — BG, Americans being held abroad, marginalized communities — without offering any insight on how Griner and her teammates were left unprotected. That said, pre-game remarks from Mercury Head Coach Vanessa Nygaard were telling.
“I do know Phoenix as an organization, we follow the rules,” Nygaard said. “And we were given guidelines of travel, and we follow the guidelines established by the league.”
Earlier this year, the WNBA expanded its charter flights program. Under those amended rules, players would now take charter flights for all postseason games, the WNBA Commissioner’s Cup Championship Game, and any back-to-back regular season games. Engelbert told the press that the cost for that expansion would be bore by the league.
It’s not clear that any understanding was ever reached, between the Mercury and the WNBA, as to who would incur the cost of Griner’s charter flights. The WNBPA acknowledged to Michael Voepel of ESPN that there was likely uncertainty about “whether the Mercury were allowed to pay for all the charters, even though Griner had been approved for them.” Worried that a misstep would run afoul of WNBA rules, the Mercury, seemingly, did nothing… and, frankly, it’s a miracle that it took seven games for their analysis paralysis to be exposed.
The nightmare that Brittney Griner lived through — the wrongful detainment, the show trial, the 10 months of detainment — began in an airport. She was returning to Russia to resume play with UMMC Ekaterinburg, the club team she’d played for since 2014, when she was detained at Sheremetyevo International Airport. It all started there. The fact that she wants to step into another airport, anywhere, is a testament to her strength. That she steps into an airport, while representing the Phoenix Mercury and WNBA, obligate them to make the environment as safe and as comfortable as is possible. They failed BG and her teammates on Saturday and need to take steps to ensure it doesn’t happen again.
Heather and I will have more on this and a roundup of Week 3 in the WNBA in our weekly chat tomorrow.