New York Liberty fines for chartered flights makes no sense

UPDATE: The WNBA followed up with a response to this post saying there was no proposal for three-years-worth of charter flights for WNBA teams.

The WNBA is one of the best, most interesting sports leagues in the world right now.

Yet, its players aren’t treated that way. And, what’s more, when an owner within the league tries to give their team first-class treatment, they get punished.

That’s what happened to New York Liberty team owner Joe Tsai who was fined $500,000 for flying the Liberty via charter during the second half of last WNBA season, Sports Illustrated’s Howard Megdal reports.

The Liberty flew on chartered flights for five games last season — five that they all happened to lose, by the way. They were also given a trip to Napa, California during Labor Day weekend in which they also flew charter on.

Technically, per Megdal, those things are violations of the WNBA’s collective bargaining agreement.

WNBA teams are not allowed to fly charter because the league doesn’t want to foster a competitive disadvantage. Some teams say they cannot afford to pay for charter flights for their players.

The logic is that allowing one team to pay for a chartered flight while another can’t would give that team an advantage over the other. So, in essence, it’s the same big market vs. small market argument we see throughout all of pro sports.

But the punishment is what makes this scenario strange. Not only were the Liberty levied the largest fine in league history, but the team was almost nixed, per Megdal.

“After someone alerted the WNBA to the Liberty’s violations, possible remedies floated by the league’s general counsel, Jamin Dershowitz, ranged from losing “every draft pick you have ever seen” to suspending ownership, even “grounds for termination of the franchise,” according to a Sept. 21, 2021, communication between the league and the Liberty reviewed by SI.”

Travel issues have been a problem for the W for essentially as long as the league has existed. Back in 2018, the Aces had to forfeit a game against the Mystics after 25 hours of travel.

In that same story, Mystics Head Coach Mike Thibault recalled a story from 2003 where the Connecticut Sun made it to a game against the Liberty just 52 minutes before tip-off because of travel issues.

The WNBA champion Chicago Sky expressed similar frustrations just last season during their series against the Connecticut Sun where the team was separated on commercial flights.

This is something the WNBA’s athletes constantly face despite the problem being relatively easy to solve. There are ways to do this and there’s lots of money flowing through the WNBA’s ownership groups — five of the league’s 12 owners also own NBA teams.

The Liberty even offered up a proposal to make it happen for the next 3 years, per Megadl, that was met with opposition from a majority of owners because once players got used to it, “there’d be no going back.”

You can’t make that up. Owners are so worried about a potential competitive disadvantage that they’d block a leaguewide improvement to make sure it doesn’t happen.

UPDATE: The WNBA responded to this, saying there was never a proposal from the Liberty that included 3 years of chartered flights for the league’s teams. A league spokesperson said it was agreed upon that they’d explore opportunities, but nothing has been presented.

“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. It was agreed that the Liberty would explore opportunities regarding charter flights and present it to the Board. To date, that has not happened.”

Even still, this feels like league in its own way. The WNBA’s owners are cutting off the league’s nose to spite its face.

This completely validates everything Liz Cambage had been saying about the league and its collective bargaining agreement. There are owners out there who want to do better for their players. The WNBA just has to let them.

Clearly, that’s not happening. At least not anytime soon. And that’s a shame.

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