Before approaching the court on Sunday, Phoenix Mercury coach Vanessa Nygaard had one aim in mind.
She wants the WNBA to go above and beyond to ensure the safety and security of her team’s traveling parties.
The two coaches and a handful of players said more charter flights could help prevent future run-ins with outsiders one day after Mercury center Brittney Griner was challenged by a “provocateur” at Dallas-Fort Worth International Airport.
“We will ensure that our players and our organization and our staff are safe,” she said. ”We will be making (travel) adjustments that maybe should have happened before, but right now we’re going to prioritize the safety of our players and we’ve seen that the organization has supported us.”
Griner’s performance was unaffected by the incident. She had a season-high 29 points and six rebounds in the Mercury’s 85-82 triumph, their second of the season.
Griner generally speaks to media after her first trip to each location, but Mercury officials decided not to make her available on Sunday.
Clearly, the episode had an effect on Phoenix. Longtime star Diana Taurasi told Griner to “breathe” before the game, and Taurasi requested the league not to dismiss it.
“It’s unnerving to be in a situation like that and unfortunately, it was literally the first time we were in public together,” said Taurasi, who turned 41 on Sunday. “That can’t happen for our players or coaches. The safety of everyone comes first; basketball is secondary to all that. People have families, kids and to be put in that situation really is pretty disrespectful not only to BG but to our team, to the league. So hopefully they can take steps into making sure the security of our players throughout the league is at the forefront.”
Nygaard reiterated those remarks during a 75-second pregame statement in which she expressed support for Griner and worry for everyone who traveled to Indianapolis. She also stated that Phoenix had already altered its plans for future road trips, though she declined to offer specifics citing league policy and team safety protocols.
The uproar originates from a 93-second video posted on Sunday by Alex Stein, in which he yelled at Griner. He grilled Griner on everything from whether she despised America to whether the exchange for a Russian prisoner was a reasonable bargain to get her released from Russia. Griner was released in December after being arrested in Russia on narcotics accusations for nearly ten months.
She did not respond to Stein and has not spoken publicly about the airport incident since it occurred,
“No one should be a victim of targeted harassment,” Nygaard said. “I’m grateful that our team and our staff are physically well and most of all I’m grateful that BG has been back here in the United States for 185 days now. If her being home makes some people mad, I think that obviously says more about them than it does about her.”
Griner has been well received by fans both at home and on the road this season. She played twice in her home state of Texas this week, and fans in Indianapolis gave her the largest applause of any opponent during player introductions on Sunday.
Griner’s safety has been a source of concern since the season began. Even at the time, league authorities were conferring with Mercury executives and the All-Star center’s representatives about how to safeguard Griner and her teammates in the aftermath of the widely publicized case.
Griner was given authorization by the league to buy her own charter aircraft. This year, charter flights were introduced for the whole playoffs, as well as a few of back-to-back regular-season games. Since the league’s establishment in 1997, WNBA teams have flown commercially during the regular season.
But Saturday’s incident may force everyone in the league to revisit the issue.
“That’s obviously nothing no one wants to deal with, especially on a business trip for work,” Phoenix center Brianna Turner said, noting the players were escorted to a more private room in the airport. “We’re representing the league, we’re representing the city of Phoenix, our organization and in times like that we don’t want to cause a big scene. We don’t want to like throw phones or say some things.”
Around the league, the reaction was almost unanimous.
Breanna Stewart, who is on the executive committee of the players’ union said everyone would support Griner flying privately.
“I think that you know, that there needs to be extra precautionary measures taken and you know, I don’t think anyone is against BG having charter flights whenever she wants, so that she can be herself and travel and be comfortable and be safe,” Stewart said. “Because that’s the last thing we want is what happened yesterday.”
Longtime friend and former teammate Emma Cannon did not hide her disgust about what happened to Griner, a godparent of Cannon’s son.
“I’m not going to lie, that made me very angry,” the Fever forward said. “Then I saw a little snippet of the video, which was upsetting and then for that to be her first time flying commercial with the team like that, it’s upsetting.”