WNBA fines Liberty $500K for using charter flights, reportedly considered franchise termination

The WNBA levied a $500,000 fine against the New York Liberty for their repeated use of charter flights over the back end of the season, an issue that has been at its boiling point for the past few years.

It's a league-record number that was reduced from $1 million and included the removal of Liberty executive Oliver Weisberg from the league's executive committee, according to a Sports Illustrated report. The use of charter flights is a competitive advantage since not all franchise owners are deep-pocketed enough to pay. It is a violation of the collective bargaining agreement.

The travel details during the 2021 All-Star break didn't add up for personnel in the WNBA front office. The weekend festivities were held in Las Vegas and featured Liberty guard Betnijah Laney in the game and guard Sami Whitcomb in the 3-point shooting contest. Sabrina Ionescu and Reshanda Gray were among the teammates in attendance.

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.

The Liberty are one of the WNBA's eight founding franchises. They are one of three (Sparks, Mercury) still remaining as the league enters its 26th season in 2022. A fourth, the Utah Starzz, is currently the Las Vegas Aces.

The report prompted outrage from fans and players alike. The WNBA Players Association shared excerpts from the story on its Twitter account and compared the fines to those levied by the league in 2016 toward players who stood up against social justice.

The thread concluded with "Napa on three," a retort at the Liberty also getting in trouble for taking the team to Napa Valley in another violation of the CBA.

WNBA and the charter flight debacle

WNBA teams fly commercial throughout the season, creating travel conditions that have been an issue for players, coaches and team owners over the years.

Liberty owner Joseph Tsai tweeted about it in October and said he was working with WNBA commissioner Cathy Engelbert to find a charter sponsor so that every team could fly charter, without impacting team owners' varying financial situations. According to Sports Illustrated, he had already presented an "unofficial" proposal on it to the Board of Governors.

On Sept. 13, according to a source familiar with the call, the WNBA Board of Governors considered an unofficial proposal from the Liberty to make charter flights the default travel option for WNBA teams—the Liberty said they’d found a way to get it comped for everyone in the league for three years—but it lacked majority support. Some owners worried that players would get used to it, so there’d be no going back, and others wondered whether players might just prefer a salary hike instead.

A WNBA communications spokesperson said in a statement to Yahoo Sports on Tuesday afternoon that the Liberty made no such offer.

“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.”

Every postseason there is a problem with cross-country travel arrangements that the league has occasionally stepped in to remedy by allowing charter flights.

In 2021, the Chicago Sky dispersed on three different commercial flights beginning at 3:30 a.m. from Connecticut to Chicago for Game 3 of the semifinal playoff series. Liz Cambage, the 6-foot-8 center who signed with the Sparks in free agency, has spoken openly about paying out of her own pocket for a better, larger seat.

May 9, 2019; New York City, NY, USA; Taiwanese businessman Joe Tsai cheers during the second half of the preseason WNBA game between the New York Liberty and the China National Team at Barclays Center.  Mandatory Credit: Vincent Carchietta-USA TODAY Sports
Liberty owner Joseph Tsai cheers during the second half of the preseason New York's game against the Chinese National Team at Barclays Center. (Vincent Carchietta/USA TODAY Sports)

Tsai, Liberty caught using charter flights

At that point, Tsai had also already taken matters into his hands and was flying the Liberty team to games on charter flights. They reportedly used it for each road game of the second half of the season.

The 2021 All-Star break in Las Vegas was reported to the league, resulting in a cease and desist from the league's general counsel, Jamin Dershowitz, per SI. Weisberg replied with a note on gender equity (via SI):

"The focus on objecting to better travel arrangements seems to go against the spirit of what the entire League is trying to achieve under the leadership of WNBA Commissioner Cathy Engelbert. We cannot begin to talk about gender equity until we solve some pressing issues that have put extra burdens on the health and well-being of WNBA players. In the spirit of improving working conditions for our female athletes, we are of the strong belief that WNBA teams should be permitted to arrange travel that is consistent with the fact that they are professional athletes.”

At that point, it was September and the WNBA reportedly did not want the off-court story to take over the on-court stories. The Liberty pushed back on the $1 million fine that the WNBA told SI was "floated informally but never formally presented" as punishment. Engelbert reportedly said on a Board of Governors call that she "cut a deal with Joe" for a reduced fine.

WNBA front office members reportedly wondered if teams would now do whatever they wanted to win if it meant only a fine and another reportedly questioned why the Liberty were allowed to compete in the playoffs.

Sabrina Ionescu, players react to fines

Players reacted to the public news of the fines on social media accounts. Most called out the league for saying it wants to support women and pushing toward gender equity, but then denying opportunities to treat their players as professionals.

Stars Breanna Stewart, Angel McCoughtry, Chelsea Gray and Liberty forward Michaela Onyenwere took to Instagram comments to react. Tennis superstar Naomi Osaka asked on Twitter, "I you wanna progress or not?"

The news hit on the first day of Women's History Month, leaving timelines mixed with the Liberty flight fine tweets and campaigns promoting equality. The Connecticut Sun announced The FLYY Movement as its "Change Can't Wait" Business of the Month.

It was the Phoenix Mercury account that threw down hardest with a pun and push for ticket sales when they face the Liberty in 2021.

Yes, that is New York native and former Liberty center Tina Charles in the graphic with Ionescu.

The sides have history. Early in the 2021 season, the Mercury's Skylar Diggins-Smith and Liberty's Jazmine Jones got into it on Twitter and their teams' social media accounts got in on the trash talking. Then in the first round of the single-elimination playoffs, the eighth-seeded Liberty nearly upset the Mercury to advance.

Mercury guard Shey Peddy also joked about the situation.