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Should Team USA impose “term limits” on WNBA players for world competition?

The USA women’s basketball team remains the best in the world, but many great players never get a chance to play for them because of a deep talent pool. Would “term limits” help?

The USA women’s basketball team won its third consecutive World Cup, but it wasn’t as easy as it looked. Could imposing WNBA “term limits” make transitions easier?
Catherine Steenkeste/NBAE via Getty Images

The USA women’s national basketball team won its third consecutive gold medal in the FIBA Women’s Basketball World Cup last Sunday. It was the Americans’ eleventh consecutive medal dating back to 1979, and their tenth World Championship to date.

The Americans’ dominance is undeniable and has lasted for nearly 40 years. They have won a medal in every World Cup or Championship since 1979, and have also won a medal in every Olympics since 1984. And since 1996, the Americans have won a gold medal in every world competition except for the 2006 FIBA World Championship, when they took the bronze.

Since the WNBA was created 22 years ago, things have changed considerably for women’s professional basketball players, especially American ones. The professional basketball season overseas typically happens during the winter and early spring, but the WNBA and most international competition happens in the summer. Pay, both in the WNBA and most pro leagues, isn’t particularly high, so players are playing year-round. It’s a grind.

Ultimately, the rise of the WNBA has developed a new generation of WNBA players and foundational trios for Team USA. In the 1996, 2000 and 2004 Olympics, Lisa Leslie, Sheryl Swoopes and Dawn Staley were the foundational trio while younger players like Sue Bird, Diana Taurasi and Tamika Catchings had to wait their turn. And in 2008, 2012 and 2016, Bird, Taurasi and Catchings were the next foundational trio behind Team USA and their dominance in world competition.

Team USA is in a period of transition before the 2020 Olympic Games in Tokyo. Six of the 12 players from the FIBA World Cup made the team for the first time. However, Bird and Taurasi are still on the team. To Bird’s and Taurasi’s credit, they are still two of the best guards in the WNBA. But their participation — as well as Lindsay Whalen’s and Seimone Augustus’ until this year’s World Cup — also meant that other younger guards couldn’t get a chance to play in a World Cup or Olympic Games. Because of that, some American guards who play overseas in the winter have decided to acquire citizenship and play for other countries.

For example, Becky Hammon played for Russia in the 2008 and 2012 Olympics, Lindsey Harding played for Belarus in the 2016 Olympics, and Courtney Vandersloot is playing for Hungary (though they haven’t made an Olympics with her). And other American guards like two-time defending WNBA Defensive Player of the Year Alana Beard will probably never play in an Olympics, since she is now 36 years old. Beard was part of Team USA’s 2006 World Cup team that won the bronze medal.

Ultimately, that leads to this question: Should there be “term limits” on WNBA players for Team USA in world competition?

The pros of term limits

There are two advantages of subjecting WNBA players to term limits on Team USA:

A larger number of American players get to represent Team USA - Even if Team USA’s World Cup starters sat out, the Americans would still bring the most talented team in the tournament by far. If players were limited to three world tournaments, there could be a clearer transition of eras based on position.

More rest for some WNBA stars - It is honorable for WNBA players who make a national team to go to a world tournament immediately after the end of their regular season. But players shouldn’t have to risk injury after compressed seasons every other calendar year. The world tournaments are currently held every even-numbered year.

The cons of term limits

There are also some disadvantages of term limits:

The United States is handicapping itself against other teams - Like any other country, the United States deserves to put the best team it can out there. It’s not their problem that Spain, France or Australia cannot beat them. And these countries will put their best players on the court.

Medals are never guaranteed - This piggybacks off the last point. All streaks come to an end, and Team USA will fail to win a medal at some point in basketball. This sport is growing worldwide and many European teams, Belgium especially, have risen quite dramatically in the last few years.

But really, should Team USA impose term limits?

I understand the issue that Team USA has when it comes to expanding the talent pool for world tournaments. However, the USA, like anyone else, deserves to have the best team possible with the best players who want to play for their country. I understand why some would want Sue Bird and Diana Taurasi to step down. But it’s also their choice to continue playing for Team USA as long as they are good enough to do so. For that reason, I am not in favor of imposing term limits.