Following the harassment of WNBA star Brittney Griner at Dallas-Fort Worth International Airport, Phoenix Mercury’s leadership plans to make adjustments to prioritize players’ travel safety, head coach Vanessa Nygaard said Sunday.
Griner, who was freed from Russia in December after being wrongfully detained, was at the airport en route to a game with teammates Saturday morning when a man confronted her, a source familiar with the incident told CNN.
The man, described by the WNBA in a statement as a “social media provocateur,” yelled at the two-time Olympic gold medalist about “the Merchant of Death.”
The increasingly heated altercation resulted in the man being tackled and police getting involved, according to the source.
After spending nearly 300 days in Russian custody, Griner was released in a prisoner swap that involved Russian arms dealer Viktor Bout – nicknamed the “Merchant of Death.” The prisoner exchange prompted criticism from some Republicans, who accused the Biden administration of releasing a dangerous prisoner back to Russia, CNN previously reported.
“League rules mandate that I can’t speak about travel, but I can speak about safety, so we will ensure that our players and our organization and our staff are safe,” Nygaard said ahead of the Mercury’s Sunday game against the Indiana Fever.
“We will be making adjustments that maybe should’ve happened before, but right now, we’re going to prioritize the safety of our players, and we’ve seen that our organization has supported us,” the head coach said.
When asked if Griner was approved to charter flights and why she wasn’t chartering on Saturday, Nygaard said the team was following league-established rules and guidelines.
In a statement Saturday, the WNBA said it worked with the Mercury and Griner’s team to ensure her safety prior to the season, adding that she had been given permission to charter flights.
Mercury center Brianna Turner called the harassment incident “very alarming,” saying it was “startling” to have people waiting for them at the gate shouting and causing a scene.
“That’s obviously nothing no one wants to deal with, especially when you’re on a business trip for work,” she said.
Griner’s longtime teammate and WNBA star Diana Taurasi said that the harassment occurred during the team’s first public appearance since Griner’s release.
“It was literally the first time we were in public together,” Taurasi said.
Describing the incident as “unnerving,” Taurasi said the players’ safety comes first.
“Basketball is secondary to all that,” Taurasi said. “People have families, kids, and to be put in that situation really is pretty disrespectful to, I think, not only (Griner), but to our team, to the league really. So hopefully they can take steps into making sure that the security of our players throughout the league is at the forefront.”
In response to the incident, the Women’s National Basketball Players Association issued a statement calling for greater flexibility regarding charter flights for athletes.
Griner and her teammates experienced “a calculated confrontation that left them feeling very unsafe,” said the organization. “Everyone who was paying attention knew this would happen. We could have and should have been more proactive.”
“Every commercial flight forced upon our players is a threat to their health and safety,” the association went on in the statement. “We implore the league and the teams not to wait another day to change the rule regarding travel.”
CNN’s Zoe Sottile contributed to this report.