WNBA commits flagrant foul with Liberty fine for chartering planes

Photo Credit: Lamar Carter

A recent bombshell piece penned by Howard Megdal regarding New York Liberty owners Joe and Clara Wu Tsai chartering planes for its players was titled “Traveling Violation.”

The WNBA should have made like modern basketball – and looked at it as the transportation version of a eurostep. Instead, the W committed an intentional flagrant foul while New York was shooting a 3-pointer – meaning the Liberty should be shooting three free throws plus possession of the ball.

According to the article, it was floated among WNBA brass that the Liberty would be fined $1 million for a violation of the collective bargaining agreement. It even reported that the so-called violation would even be grounds for a complete termination of the Liberty franchise as a whole.

There is so much to unpack from that report from the great Howard Megdal – but one thing has to be mentioned. This scandal-that-is-not-a-scandal is peak WNBA.

It has been often talked about amongst our WNBA family about our teams – featuring the premier women’s basketball players in the world – flying coach as if they were average Joe’s like you or us. Joe Tsai has been very vocal about wanting to fix the WNBA’s travel issues – one that has plagued many a team in recent seasons – including the Liberty and Las Vegas Aces among others.

Tsai had apparently had enough – and took matters into his own hands. The idea that Tsai, who himself likely saved the New York franchise from extinction after being put on the market after the 2017 season by the coward known as James Dolan, would be punished for actually investing in his players and ensuring that they would be able to get to games on time is peak WNBA.

It has been lamented in the past in W boardrooms that the reason why chartered planes are not a thing in the WNBA is because it would create a competitive advantage for certain teams, like the Liberty and Aces, whose owners have deeper pockets than the average W governor. The chartering of planes reportedly took place after the Olympic break – when the Liberty ran into its worst stretch of the season – one that nearly cost New York a playoff berth.

That idea of competitive disadvantage was all but blown up in that Sports Illustrated report. The real reason why chartered flights are not a thing in the WNBA, says that report, is because some owners believe it would become “a thing” and flying commercial would be a thing of the past. It was also mentioned about a belief that players would prefer a salary increase instead.

Remember how the great Tamryn Spruill mentions that whenever a big WNBA scandal hits the news that the mainstream media, who probably could not mention 10 WNBA players (especially 10 Black WNBA players), will treat the W like a booty call. It is very apparent after reading that report that there are owners in the WNBA who also treat it like a booty call and have quizzical looks on their faces when they see owners like the Tsais and Mark Davis in Las Vegas who actually want to marry the WNBA.

And we all know there are crooked owners in the WNBA. Robert Sarver with the Phoenix Mercury – he is being investigated by Adam Silver and the NBA for sexual harassment as well as racism. Bill Cameron with the Dallas Wings – remember the controversy of the WASP Rebel jersey as well as the “Blocks for the Blue” promotion from last season? The Wings run into public relations problem after public relations problem and it all goes back to Cameron.

The Tsais even tried to meet the other owners halfway. Megdal’s reporting unveiled that the Liberty had unearthed a solution to offer chartered flights for the entire WNBA for the next three seasons. The proposal was rejected by the majority of the other WNBA owners and the league itself is now denying that a proposal was ever made by New York.

These other owners need to reveal themselves sooner rather than later – because they are the ones who pay lots of silver-tongued lip service about “Betting on Women” when really the W is nothing more than that booty call Spruill mentions in regards to sports media.

While the report mentions that the Lib’s travel irregularities were first brought up by someone in the WNBA’s front office, one wonders if the individual or individuals who blew the whistle and called the foul on the Liberty is someone from either the league or another team with an axe to grind. If it is someone within another team’s front office, then obviously they do not know how hard WNBA players are willing to fight for what is fair.

After all, these are the same WNBA players, particularly those of the Atlanta Dream, who fought with everything they had to get one of its ex-owners in Kelly Loeffler out of the league after she revealed herself to be anti-Black Lives Matter. The Dream and the rest of the WNBA did not let the confines of the bubble or the pandemic hinder the message they wanted to send. Their efforts were successful – Loeffler lost her Georgia Senate runoff to Raphael Warnock and she later sold the Dream to an ownership group that includes Renee Montgomery, Larry Gottesdiener and Suzanne Abair.

In addition, there are probably executives in 10 other WNBA front offices outside of those in Las Vegas and New York that now have to think about this when trying to woo free agents. There is a reason why Breanna Stewart had meetings over this past free agent period with the Liberty – the native of New York state is obviously interested in sporting seafoam, copper and black. The Tsais and Davis have practiced what so many have preached on the issue of investing real money into the WNBA and growing the W into what it has the potential to be.

If one in another team office was hoping to bring a scandal upon the Liberty, that front office individual just made New York and Las Vegas into the most attractive free agent destinations in the entire WNBA. Given the reaction of WNBA players on Twitter to Howard Megdal’s report, those players when it becomes their time to shine in free agency, could be thinking about playing for the Aces or Liberty to spite the rest of the league and send a message that the era of treating the W like a one-night stand is over and it is time to put a ring on it.

The WNBPA has a chance to get WNBA owners to put that ring on it the next time a CBA is to be negotiated. The CBA that the players and league ratified in 2020 is supposed to span seven years through 2027 – but there is an option for a mutual termination of the CBA following the 2025 season – one year before the W has its 30th rendition in 2026.

Between this and Stewart’s recent criticism of the WNBA’s “prioritization clause” (where players are required to put the interests of their WNBA teams over those of their overseas clubs despite those overseas teams paying players more money), the groundwork is already being laid for another tense CBA fight in the next few years – where the WNBPA will be firm in insisting charter flights for all teams or else.

Another detail that was expertly mentioned in the report was how professional women’s sports is flush in money. The $75 million in capital gains the WNBA recently landed is more than the Premier Hockey Federation got ($25 million) but less than the $100 million the NWSL recently got. Not to mention the recent sale of the Washington Spirit to Michele Kang for $35 million. It did not even mention how, at the collegiate level, women’s basketball is only below football on the rung of sports that are cashing in on NIL deals.

Also – about that NWSL? It now has 12 teams just as the WNBA does. And it is expanding at a more breakneck pace than the WNBA is as evidenced by the recent announcements of Los Angeles and San Diego teams.

Why are there owners within the WNBA that still have this penny-pinching mindset as if women’s sports do not make money. One school of thought believes it goes back to the whole “booty call” mentality. Another goes back to a Players Tribune piece that Megan Rapinoe wrote in October 5 of 2020 about why it is easier to support women’s soccer than women’s basketball. She believes that it is more difficult for Americans to back women’s basketball because of its Black and LGBTQ+ representation as opposed to women’s soccer which is perceived as “cute,” “unthreatening,” “straight,” “suburban” and “white girls next door.”

Whatever the reason, the fact remains that there is money to made in the WNBA and Tsai and Davis apparently see what other owners do not see or do not care to see. Instead of a $1 million fine, the Liberty were fined $500,000 and Oliver Weisberg, an executive with both the Liberty and Brooklyn Nets, was removed from the WNBA’s executive committee.

Also – here is something that gave the Tsais leverage – the part in the SI report where Jamin Dershowitz, the W’s general counsel put out into the universe the possible termination of the Liberty franchise. There was zero chance that was going to happen.

This is the same WNBA that a few seasons ago went through hell and high water to save its flagship franchise after it was put on the market by James Dolan and MSG (not to mention rescuing it from the sandbox that was the Westchester County Center.

A WNBA without a franchise in New York, especially considering it is one of the Original Eight franchises, is a WNBA that would lose a lot of legitimacy – and a good chunk of that $400 million valuation mentioned in the SI piece as opposed to the $1 billion number commissioner Cathy Engelbert boasted about after the securing of the $75 million capital gains haul.

Let us be frank – there are owners of other WNBA teams, possibly Cameron and Sarver, that look with jealousy at the Tsais and Davis’ of the world. Rich women and men commonly get jealous at the idea of other rich women and men being bigger Richie Rich’s than them – see TFG. Look at the money Tsai has already invested into improving the Liberty’s facilities at Barclays Center. Look at the money Davis wants to invest into an Aces training complex in Henderson, Nevada – and possibly an arena.

Some of this jealousy among some of the more penny-pinching WNBA owners has to do with a Neanderthalic belief at Park Avenue that men deserve and women do not – those owners should only have access to the WNBA if they purchase a ticket or buy League Pass.

Others are simply jealous because Tsai and Davis have money they wish they had. How many owners wish they could do a Zoom press conference from the comfort of their private jet the way Clara Wu Tsai did at the introductory presser for Sandy Brondello as the new head coach of the Liberty.

Then let us not count out the possibly that there may be those within WNBA/NBA circles that may look down on Joe and Clara Wu Tsai simply because they are Chinese and not Caucasian. Davis could easily dance around the CBA like the Liberty did and also have his Aces fly charter – he can definitely do this if he offered the money he shelled to Becky Hammon. Would an expose be done about him?

Punishing the Liberty for taking a matter into its own hands that the WNBA itself seems lukewarm on trying to fix is nothing short of tone deaf. Instead of fining the Tsais, they probably should have won the WNBA’s Advocacy award over Chris Paul.

The $500,000 that the Liberty were fined should at least be donated to a charity that advocates for the advancement of Black, Brown and Asian women in greater society (especially considering how community-oriented the Lib have been throughout its history). Weisberg should get his spot on the WNBA’s executive committee restored. And the WNBA needs to do a full-scale house cleaning of any owners that are not looking with a long-term mindset towards the future of the league – starting with Sarver and Cameron.

Engelbert would also be wise to meet with the Tsais (either in person or over Zoom). Engelbert and the Tsais are New Yorkers so it probably would not be that difficult to organize a meeting with them. That meeting needs to conclude with the WNBA Board of Governors taking Tsai up on his offer to charter planes for the next three seasons. Plus (and here is an interesting concept …) WNBA charters would actually be cheaper (for obvious reasons) than NBA charters.

Or Engelbert and WNBA, you can continue to keep your heads in the sand on this issue. But we promise you this – if you do, you are guaranteeing that at least one team will have a travel issue getting to a game (especially with this season being so constricted because of the scheduling around the FIBA World Cup in Australia) and the Tsais will be sitting even prettier than they already are now.

For all the worthwhile conversation this has started on social media – one real and honest question has to be asked about the state of the WNBA.

Does the WNBA not respect itself?

For a league that talks endlessly about wanting to grow its reach, why would a cabal of its owners turn down a proposal from a deep-pocketed owner that would have alleviated travel issues for its own teams? That is a reflection of how those owners truly feel about those teams – and if one is a free agent, she would be wise to stay as far away from those teams as possible.

Look at Athletes Unlimited. Between the production value, embracing of Black culture and the empowerment of Black women storytellers it showed the W everything it can be if those at Park Avenue really believed in “Betting on Women” the way the sports world at large is.

Does the WNBA not see itself as worthy?

Does the WNBA not see itself as deserving?

Does the WNBA really seem content with not living up to its true potential while other professional sports organizations – including other women’s leagues continue to put action behind its lip service.

Of course, the WNBA is not directly the problem – those that run it are. And since the NBA’s Board of Governors also has a hand in anything directly relating to WNBA operations, the NBA needs to likely clean house once it find their pasts are probably not sparkling clean either.

Eventually, someone from the WNBA is going to have to be forthcoming and address everything that was unveiled by Megdal in that Sports Illustrated report – namely Engelbert. After all, after years of league presidents, the “first-ever commissioner” title was bestowed upon someone who has done great things for the league while still a white woman. The buck stops with her and this report is a massive public relations problem for the WNBA.

Letting this simmer down and hoping it merely goes away is not the correct approach. Given how charter flights are not only a hot button topic among WNBA pundits and fans, but WNBA players (and owners as evidenced by Tsai and Davis), this will only make more look at the W with a side eye until a solution is found to alleviate its much-ballyhooed travel woes.

What the WNBA needs to realize is that itself is a first-class plane with a full tank of gas ready for takeoff. It has already departed from the tarmac and is approaching the runway. There are owners like Sarver, Cameron and others that want to keep the WNBA grounded while other airplanes – including that of the NWSL, leave the runway first despite the WNBA’s plane having a years-long headstart on the NWSL from the proverbial Florence Griffith Joyner Title IX Airport.

Tsai and Davis along with the players are those that want to keep pumping gas into that jumbo jet that is the WNBA so everyone can see exactly what it can be.

WNBA, it has been 26 years. The results show that you no longer need anyone’s validation. There are no planes in front of you on the runway to progress. You are cleared and ready for takeoff.