In a continuance of the generally dreadful travel nightmare inflicting the U.S., around 900 domestic flights were canceled and 6,300 were delayed on Sunday. Among the impacted passengers? The entirety of the Los Angeles Sparks basketball team. After their flight was canceled, half of the team said they had to sleep in a D.C. hotel overnight, while the other half had to sleep in the airport—since the hotel didn’t have enough rooms. So with the WNBA playoffs less than two weeks away—and considering the team’s travel woes are just the latest in a decade-long struggle for better working conditions—the Sparks had some deservedly choice tweets for league commissioner Cathy Engelbert.
Chinenye “Chiney” Ogwumike, for one, doesn’t seem to have any intentions of letting the WNBA scamper off with its tail between its legs, sans accountability. The Sparks’ forward posted a video to Instagram at 2:14 am, tagging the WNBA as she danced on United golf carts and sang, “You won’t break my soul.”
After defeating Washington on Sunday evening at the Mystics’ home arena in D.C., the Sparks players reportedly dashed for the airport as soon as the game ended, according to writer David Eldridge, who tweeted that WNBA teams still being forced to fly commercial is “unfathomable.” The Sparks, who are fighting to clinch a spot in the playoffs after a considerable amount of drama over former player Liz Cambage’s sudden departure, are set to take on the Connecticut Sun on Tuesday back home in Los Angeles. The outcome of the game will determine whether the Sparks will get a chance at one of the remaining two playoff spots—a potentially season-ending game that, for any elite athlete, would require time for rest and a mental reset.
Nneka Ogwumike, Chineye’s sister and another forward for the Sparks, also posted a video at 1:45 am Monday saying, “It’s the first time in my eleven seasons that I’ve ever had to sleep in the airport.” Ogwumike, who’s the president of the WNBA Players Association and has been a fierce advocate for bringing fellow WNBA star Brittney Griner home, also said in the video that their flight had been delayed twice before getting canceled at 1:00 am. And due to a shortage of rooms, only half the team had been granted nearby hotel beds, while the other half were granted a rock-hard spot on the floor. Nothing says a little R&R like the cacophony of a metropolitan airport at the ass-crack of dawn.
For all the puzzling components of the airline dustup, one thing is certain: The Sparks are not going to shut up and dribble. Teammate Brittney Skyes described the situation in a tweet using “trash” emojis, while Lexie Brown trolled Engelbert with a Spongebob gif. Even Sparks assistant coach Latricia Trammell joined in the outrage directed at the league for their complicity in the mishap, tweeting “#theseplayersdeservebetter.”
While private travel is considered an unheard-of luxury for most WNBA players, chartered flights are basically the vanilla ice cream of airfare for most major men’s leagues: the absolute minimum, a basic right, and unworthy of even the smallest dollop of gratitude. Under the guise of “fairness,” or “competitive balance” as spelled out in the WNBA’s collective bargaining agreement, however, all WNBA teams are required to fly commercial because some owners are unable—or simply refuse—to pay for charter flights. Last season, according to a Sports Illustrated investigative report by Howard Megdal, the New York Liberty, owned by Alibaba Group co-founder and billionaire Joe Tsai, racked up a $500,000 fine (the largest in WNBA history) and reportedly almost lost their franchise because the team elected to fly charter for the second half of the season on their own dime. The sheer audacity of the Liberty, taking care of their employees and allowing them to rest so they can perform at the highest levels of elite athleticism, ugh!!!
But delayed flights and airport woes are just another walk in the park—one with dysfunctional seesaws and stinking, dead grass—for WNBA players. In June, five-time WNBA All-Star Skylar Diggins-Smith tweeted that flying the same day of a game “will never sit well” with her. Earlier this year, a plethora of players and coaches voiced their concerns over the constant exposure to the public on commercial flights, especially as mask mandates were lifted, which left several players with grueling cases of covid. In 2018, a 25-hour travel nightmare caused the league to delay and then cancel a Las Vegas Aces game. Even as far back as 2003, according to ESPN, former Olympian and WNBA fan-favorite Rebecca Lobo said her team didn’t sleep after travel mayhem and still, somehow, played (and won) their game.
Earlier this year, the WNBA awarded Kelsey Plum with the WNBA All-Star game’s Most Valuable Player award: a miniature-looking trophy that wound up standing as an un-ironic representation of the support the league provides even the best of its players. If you imagine the outrage that might erupt if any of these issues—airport slumber parties, interrupted self-care, tiny trophies—had befallen LeBron James or Steph Curry or Chris Paul leading up to the playoffs, it’s pretty spectacular that WNBA players are willing to keep playing at all. And if you’ve ever been stranded at an airport and later screamed at your partner for chewing too loudly (this is a hypothetical story, of course), you can begin to understand how fucked up it is that the Sparks will be clawing their way to the playoffs tomorrow night.
But we shouldn’t have to compare the plight of WNBA players to the perks of the NBA because the benefits men receive shouldn’t be the gold standard. Rather, women deserve to be treated with respect, regardless of the treatment of male athletes. For now, while the WNBA figures its shit out (in July, they offered to provide charter flights for the two Finals teams this year), make sure to keep your eyes peeled the next time you pass through the airport: You might run into WNBA’s finest counting their pennies on the ground!