Phoenix Mercury center Brittney Griner and her teammates were confronted by a Blaze Media YouTube personality in the Dallas-Fort Worth International airport on Saturday morning before flying to Indiana after the team played twice in Arlington, Texas, this past week.
Alex Stein, a Dallas native who has gained some notoriety for confronting politicians, posted a photograph on Twitter saying, “I just met my favorite WNBA player. Video coming soon.” Stein then also posted a brief clip of him yelling at Griner as she walked through the airport.
The league said Saturday that Griner has been approved to fly charter for WNBA games. It’s unclear why she was not doing so Saturday.
“As we gather additional information about today’s incident at the Dallas airport, it has come to our attention that this was orchestrated by a social media figure and provocateur. His actions were inappropriate and unfortunate,” the league said in a statement. “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.”
Late Saturday afternoon, the Mercury also released a statement.
“We are reviewing the incident that took place today at the Dallas airport. The health and well-being of our players and staff are our top priority and we will always take every step within our power to protect player safety.
“We are committed to our support of BG and advocating for all American hostages abroad. We will continue our support of marginalized communities and fighting the kind of hate that targeted us today. No one, regardless of identity, should ever fear for their safety. We will be coordinating with the WNBA on next steps.”
Griner’s teammate Brianna Turner said on social media about the incident: “Player safety while traveling should be at the forefront. 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.”
Griner is playing in the WNBA again this year after missing all of last season. She was arrested at Moscow’s Sheremetyevo Airport in February 2022 when she was returning to Russia to continue her overseas basketball season there. Russian customs officials said they found vape canisters with cannabis oil in her luggage, which she later acknowledged in court while saying she had no criminal intent and had packed them in haste.
In August, Griner was sentenced to a nine-year prison term, but in December she was freed through a negotiated prisoner exchange between the United States and Russian governments.
Griner has been warmly welcomed back by crowds at home in Phoenix and on the road. This past week, she returned to her home state of Texas. The Mercury fell to the Dallas Wings on Wednesday and Friday. They next play Sunday against the Indiana Fever in Indianapolis.
For cost reasons, the WNBA primarily flies via commercial airlines, saying the league as a whole cannot afford charter flights and allowing some of the 12 teams to do so would cause a competitive imbalance issue. The league announced earlier this year that it will have charter flights for all playoff games this season and certain regular-season games that are played on back-to-back days requiring air travel.
Griner being approved by the league to charter for all games is an exception because of the publicity surrounding her detainment and release. However, her agent, Lindsay Kagawa Colas, said she thinks the entire Mercury team and all teams need to charter flights.
“Brittney Griner and the WNBA players are leaders who inspire hope for a better, more inclusive and less divided America,” Kagawa Colas said via social media. “They are celebrated for the ways their activism inspires positive change. In doing that, they also become targets for hate, threats and violence.
“And today’s incident is a clear reminder of that. We cannot celebrate these women and their leadership without also protecting them. It’s past time for charters and enhanced security measures for all players.”
The subject of Griner’s safety during travel was extensively discussed prior to the season. The Mercury and the WNBA said plans had been formulated for the team’s trips, which included security. Speaking to media on opening night, May 19, in Los Angeles, WNBA commissioner Cathy Engelbert said that strategy would be revisited throughout the season to make sure it was meeting Griner’s and the team’s needs.
“We have the travel plan set for the 20 away games,” Engelbert said. “We have a set security plan now, but obviously we have to be agile with that. It’s really important that we evaluate it periodically. The Phoenix Mercury are going to lead on that.”
The players’ union — the WNBPA — said in a statement Saturday that the Dallas incident is more evidence that charters are needed for teams throughout the WNBA season. However, travel accommodations are part of the WNBA’s collective bargaining agreement most recently agreed to in 2020.
“As we continue to hear from our members throughout the start of the season and particularly today with the situation involving the Phoenix Mercury at the Dallas airport, we are quite clear that the matter of charter travel is NOT a ‘competitive advantage’ issue,” the union said. “We cannot help but wonder if the league and teams preclude more reasonable and flexible rules regarding charter travel in 2023 in order to seek leverage on this issue at the bargaining table.
“What BG and all of her Phoenix teammates experienced today was a calculated confrontation that left them feeling very unsafe. Everyone who was paying attention knew this would happen. We could have and should have been more proactive.
“Allowing teams to fly charter is ONLY about player health and safety, and until the league and teams take this issue seriously, situations like this will continue to occur. Every commercial flight forced upon our players is a threat to their health and safety. We implore the league and the teams not to wait another day to change the rule regarding travel.”