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The story of the $500,ooo fine handed out by the WNBA to the New York Liberty is a fascinating one, and one with multiple dimensions. As Howard Megdal explores in a thorough piece on this at Sports Illustrated, there’s a lot of context to consider around that league-record fine. The fine was handed out for the Liberty continuing to charter flights in ways that broke league rules, but it also came after complaints about the WNBA’s existing travel arrangements, and amidst general divides between owners on everything from travel to capital-raising to valuations.

And while this fine was the largest in WNBA history, it wasn’t the largest potential punishment mulled. Megdal notes that a $1 million fine was initially considered, and that league general counsel Jamin Dershowitz mentioned possible sanctions from losing “every draft pick you have ever seen” to suspending ownership to even “termination of the franchise” in a September email to the Liberty. Of course, whether the league actually would or could have executed any of those higher-level punishments over extra charter flights is debatable. But it’s notable that they were mentioned.

What exactly happened with the charter flights? Well, as Megdal writes, Liberty owner Joe Tsai promised to “solve this transportation problem for good” on Twitter in July. And he brought a proposal for a league-wide solution there to the board, but it wasn’t accepted. In the meantime, though, his team went ahead with these flights:

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.

…By the time of that Sept. 13 call, New York had already taken things into its own hands, as Joe Tsai had publicly promised after a late-July travel snafu.

…The Liberty, who declined to comment to SI, chartered flights for each road game of the season’s second half, beginning in August with a trip to Minnesota. And eventually, despite a cone of silence over the franchise about it, word got out.

On one level, it seems a little ridiculous that an owner is being punished for creating better conditions for his team’s players. But on another level, this is a violation of the WNBA’s collective bargaining agreement’s provisions limiting non-salary compensation, and there’s at least an argument for those kinds of provisions in some form in any CBA (although not necessarily with flights). One big past example of that is blocking personal-service contracts, which have been used by owners in some leagues to get around more usual compensation limits; these are now generally prohibited in most current major leagues. Another example is prohibiting teams from using the networks they own or partly own to pay players for shows as an extra inducement to come there. And if your CBA spells out what the max salary can be (as most do), it needs to have at least some level of restriction on what else you can offer as an easy dodge of the max salary.

The chartering flights debate seems a little more nuanced, though. For one thing, it’s about a service for the entire team rather than for a particular player. For another, team-by-team amenities do differ, including arena, practice facility, locker room and weight room facilities; CBAs tend to spell out minimum standards, but teams can usually exceed those. And better facilities can be a recruiting advantage, so why not allow better travel arrangements as well?

On that front, it’s also notable that the Liberty reportedly tried to get charter flights brought in league-wide, but were unsuccessful in gaining majority support (even with the prospect of it being comped for everyone for three years). And that seems like the biggest issue here.

Sure, it’s somewhat understandable why the WNBA fined the Liberty for their end run around the CBA (and there would have been a potential fine there even if the league accepted the team’s September proposal, as the Liberty had begun using these flights before that). But the team also brought up a way where everyone could have this “advantage” without even any extra near-term costs. That would remove all question of an advantage, and it would be a better way to negotiate a charter deal; there are certainly better deals to be had for league-wide charters than charters for one team alone.

But the WNBA’s decision to not go that route makes them look a little silly for their specific and intense punishment of a team that tried to do better for their players. And some of the particular language they brought up was very over-the-top. Yes, the Liberty did something impermissible. Sure, there’s rationale for handing them some level of punishment. But particular threats about draft pick or franchise revocation are a bit much. Even the $500,000 fine here feels like a lot for this particular offense. Especially when there was an option provided for the whole league to get on board and avoid any level of perceived “advantage.”

[Sports Illustrated; WNBA logo from TruColor]

About Andrew Bucholtz

Andrew Bucholtz has been covering sports media for Awful Announcing since 2012. He is also a staff writer for The Comeback. His previous work includes time at Yahoo! Sports Canada and Black Press.