Natasha Cloud felt she was playing the best basketball of her career to start the 2022 WNBA season. Then, after a road game against the Minnesota Links on May 8, the Washington Mystics star tested positive for COVID-19.
The flu-like symptoms only lasted for a few days, but Cloud noticed a long-term effect. The way you recover from playing isn’t the same anymore. Her body is not responding as quickly as it did before treatment. She suffers from daily fatigue much more than she used to be.
“It was really tough,” Cloud told the Hartford Courant last Saturday. “I’ve been three years without COVID and because of the way we travel and the ways we travel, I got COVID fly into our game in Minnesota. And that’s really hard because it doesn’t matter how much we stick to protocols, how hard we try to protect ourselves, with the lifting of the mandate for masks on public transportation We are not safe.”
Travel conditions have always been a sore point for WNBA players. Commercial flying, unlike charter flights like their NBA counterparts, has never been easy, but it has been a particular challenge this year due to unique circumstances, including the high risk of COVID-19 with the lifting of the federal mask mandate, flight delays and cancellations. Frequently, managing recovery – all in an intense 36-game season.
With the Connecticut Sun on a four-game West Coast road trip across three cities this week, the Hartford Courant delved deeply into these issues.
Similar to Cloud, former league MVP Breanna Stewart contracted COVID-19 in early May after a road trip, which led to her recalling the WNBA for her continued use of commercial flights.
The use of charter flights is not permitted under the league’s collective bargaining agreement, which states that teams can only provide players with premium economy class or similar coach seats on commercial flights.
After playing against aces in Las Vegas, Stewart missed two games on May 11 and 14, both of which lost the Seattle Storm. Cloud was knocked out by two games on May 10 and 13, a period in which the Mystics tied 1-1. They are two of the 10 players who have entered health and safety protocols so far this season.
The Mystics, Storm and Connecticut Sun have all been hit hard. Alicia Clarke is now out of the Mystics team as the second player to enter the protocols. And absent from the sun are head coach and general manager Kurt Miller, assistant coach Brandy Paul and striker Joyner Holmes as they likely continue their toughest spells of the season — nine games in 17 days, including a West Coast trip. They recently signed striker Stephanie Jones, who was on the list in 2021, for a hardship contract.
Five players have already been affected by the storm. The team was without nearly a quarter of its roster in the 79-71 overtime win over the New York Liberty last Friday, including all-time WNBA leader Sue Bird. Stephanie Talbot went into health and safety protocols last Thursday while Bird and Izzy Magbigor did so on Friday, the second time Seattle found he would be without a player on the same day he was due to play a game.
Under current league policy, players are not tested for COVID-19 unless they have symptoms. Their return to play is definite symptom, but players are generally cleared after two negative tests, at least 24 hours apart. Until then, teams can temporarily replace these players except for emergencies. The storm quickly caught up with Keanna Williams and the former storm guard scrambled to get to Seattle in time.
“As a team, we were really trying to navigate health and safety protocols and trying to be safe and do the right thing,” Stewart told reporters after the victory over Liberty. “Especially to find out all this on match day and then we’re told, ‘We’re going to keep playing the game, just find a tough player. “And Seattle is the most remote city in the country that anyone can get to…A little bit of help and guidance from the WNBA would be great.”
Although some of these cases arose during home stretches, including the last three storm cases, often passing through busy airports and flying on commercial flights puts teams at greater risk of contracting COVID-19.
“I can wear my mask, we can all wear masks, but we’re sitting next to random people who don’t wear masks, we don’t know who they are, we don’t know if they’ve been vaccinated,” Cloud said. And when you talk about just trying to do our jobs and put the best product on Earth every night, it makes it really difficult.”
Less than a month into the season, flight delays and cancellations are already wreaking havoc across the league.
Air travel issues are more common than in the pre-pandemic period as airlines face staff shortages. Only about three-quarters of flights from US-based airlines departed on time in 2022, according to January-March data recorded by the US Department of Transportation, with more than 4% of those flights cancelled.
Miller said The Sun began booking flights for the season in December, and at the time finding the right kits to fit all players, coaches and staff was already a problem. A few days before the start of the season, Connecticut already had over 40 different flight changes and cancellations; Some were minor changes in time but others forced them to find a completely different flight, airline or airport. This number has increased since then.
Prior to the current West Coast trip, Sun’s only long-road game was against the Indiana Fever in Indianapolis after the team played less than 48 hours ago in Connecticut. Immediately after that Friday night’s game on May 20, the sun lingered at an airport hotel in Hartford for dawn flights connecting through Chicago, where they couldn’t find one right after six or seven flight changes. Miller said players and coaches also had to travel on different flights, with coaches arriving at the airport at 4:45 a.m., and players at 6 a.m.
Sun’s flight home from the match on Sunday also had problems, so they stayed overnight and left the hotel at 4 a.m. to fly in on Monday morning. As a result, practice was canceled and the Connecticut team lost to the Dallas Wings on Tuesday.
“You’re always a little worried that the travel is going well,” Miller said before the season started. “That’s the challenge for our role, which is dealing with those changes, dealing with the uncertainty from the airlines, and we have to focus when we need to pivot.”
Later that week, the Mystics flight to face the sun was canceled due to storms. With no other options, the team took a 4 1/2 hour train ride to Connecticut. Cloud said they didn’t arrive around 10 p.m., checked into the hotel, found food and tried to manage sleep before the morning shoot and play the next day.
Although The Sun is in a much more difficult-to-fly location than most teams, this issue isn’t unique to them – players posting comments about delays and cancellations are common. All the travel chaos affects players’ readiness for the game and recovery. Both of those are particularly important this season, which features the most regular season games in league history (36) in an intense 101-day window to accommodate the FIBA Women’s Basketball World Cup in September.
“It’s really hard on our bodies, man,” WNBA MVP and Sun forward Junkel Jones said of the intense season. “The older I get, the more I feel, so it will be difficult. The teams that stay together and have harmony and who make sure they take care of their bodies will be the teams that will have successful seasons.”
Besides things like ice baths, massage therapy and stretching, Sun Head coach Nicole Alexander places great emphasis on proper sleep and nutrition for her players’ recovery, but travel conditions often make that very difficult. She and Miller talk every day about the team’s performance under the current circumstances and even work together to adjust training schedules when travel has its implications.
“It really helps us. He and I also have this relationship to take and take,” Alexander said. “This is another thing that I think has been underestimated which is the relationship between coach and athletic coach, where there is this mutual respect from both of us.”
Alexander said coaches around the WNBA are having a group chat where they exchange tips on how to best deal with the current conditions. Many have compared this year to bubble season in 2020 in terms of the effect on players’ bodies, with added stress due to all the travel.
Cloud said: “There is no time for proper care and unfortunately, I think you will see a spike in injuries as the season continues to progress because we are in such an intense season. It is crazy what we are going through with our bodies, so … their support for us in travel will help us a lot.”
With so many travel issues less than a month into the WNBA season, it’s clear that this will continue to be a hindrance for teams unless something is done.
The WNBA has made clear its stance on charter flights, to the players’ disapproval about the league. New York Liberty was fined a league record $500,000 after owners Joe and Clara Wu Tsai repeatedly purchased charter flights for their team throughout the second half of the 2021 season because it was considered a competitive advantage, Howard Migdal reported to Sports Illustrated in Walks.
According to the same report, Liberty told the WNBA Board of Governors that they have found a way to compensate charter flights for everyone in the league for three years, but that the unofficial proposal “lacks majority support.”
Even if that support changes, it will be difficult to arrange any such deal in time for the current season. But given the gravity of the current circumstances, Cloud believes the WNBA should take action to at least mitigate its judgment.
“If we are able to get a charter and there is a problem with our travel, we should be allowed to charter,” Cloud said. “and I know that [the Mystics] They are one of the teams that are blessed enough to have owners who would help take care of us if that was the case, but because of our CBA we are not allowed to.
“I think as we are with COVID and companies are struggling to get staff, struggling to find planes and pilots, there have to be exceptions to the rules. The hope going forward is that we don’t have to travel like this anymore.”
Lila Bromberg can be reached in [email protected] and LilaBBromberg on Twitter.