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An effort to make sense of Nneka Ogwumike’s exclusion from the 2021 Olympic team

Rather than generating excitement about the upcoming Olympic Games, the announcement of the Team USA roster resulted in outrage, as Nneka Ogwumike was not named to the team. An MVP, champion and the president of the WNBPA, her exclusion inspired accusations of unfairness and conspiracy. Here’s an attempt to make sense of this messy situation.

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2020 NBA All-Star - USA Women’s Basketball Showcase
Rather than who made Team USA for the 2021 Olympics, who didn’t — namely Nneka Ogwumike — is the primary topic of conversation.
Photo by Bill Baptist/NBAE via Getty Images

Last week, USA Basketball revealed the 12-player Team USA roster for the 2021 Olympic Games. The team is headlined by Sue Bird and Diana Taurasi, who both will be playing in a historic fifth Olympic Games. The four other repeat Olympians on the roster are Sylvia Fowles, Tina Charles, Brittney Griner and Breanna Stewart. The six first timers are Chelsea Gray, Skylar Diggins-Smith, Jewell Loyd, A’ja Wilson, Ariel Atkins and Napheesa Collier.

Yet, rather than celebrating the women who will be representing the United States in Tokyo, the conversation has focused on who will not be going, namely Nneka Ogwumike. The situation recalls 2016, when Ogwumike’s former teammate Candace Parker, a 2008 and 2012 gold medalist, was not named to Team USA.

Like Parker in 2016, Ogwumike’s hoops resume suggests her selection should not have been in question. She has an extensive track record with USA Basketball, beginning when she was a member of the USA U18 team that won gold at the 2008 FIBA Americas Championship. In 2014 and 2018, Ogwumike won World Cup gold as a member of Team USA. She also was one of the core eight players that committed to USA Basketball’s 2019 training program. Of course, her WNBA career is impressive as well, highlighted by an MVP and championship in 2016. Ogwumike also is the President of the WNBPA.

In a social media post, Ogwumike’s sister Chiney articulated the sense of disappointment and unfairness felt by Nneka and her supporters.

The opaque selection process has inspired both consternation and conspiratorial thinking. The selection committee is composed of national team director Carol Callan, former Team USA head coach and longtime UConn head coach Geno Auriemma, former Olympian and current Minnesota Lynx assistant coach Katie Smith, Connecticut Sun head coach Curt Miller and WNBA league operations head Bethany Donaphin. When asked about the team selection process, Miller demurred, suggesting Callan should address any questions. Per USA Basketball policy, the national team director does not comment on the specifics of the selection process.

As it seems a satisfying explanation for Ogwumike’s exclusion will not be provided, the best we can do is try to understand how Ogwumike ended up on the outside of Team USA. It appears that more than concerns about Ogwumike’s knee injury resulted in her snub. The contradictory ethos of Team USA, in combination with questions about the relationship between the 3x3 and 5x5 teams, also contributed to the Ogwumike controversy.

Regarding her injury, Ogwumike deserved the benefit of the doubt

Head coach Dawn Staley, who did not have a say in the team selection, suggested that Ogwumike’s knee injury significantly factored into her being left of Team USA. In a media availability, she shared:

It really breaks my heart that Nneka is not on this team. I mean, if we had to make a decision a month from now ... I’m sure she would be healthy.

However, many have emphasized that Ogwumike’s expected recovery timeline would allow her to participate without problem. As Los Angeles Sparks head coach Derek Fisher put it in a press conference:

You can try to throw the injury out there if you want to; I’m calling BS on that, too. The timeline doesn’t add up for her being unavailable to play during the Olympics. We respect other players, happy for the ones that made it. But no way you can tell me you put a team together and leave Nneka off of it, and try to say it makes sense and adds up, because it doesn’t.

It also should be noted that Ogwumike was not the only prospective Olympian with injury concerns.

While she returned to the court this past weekend, Diana Taurasi’s condition was in question when the team was named last week. Her play on Sunday, her first game since May 21, alleviated any doubts. Nevertheless, not only did Taurasi suffer a sternum fracture earlier this season, but her last two WNBA seasons have been interrupted by injuries. Team USA’s other elder stateswomen — Sue Bird and Sylvia Fowles — also endured injury-marred 2020 seasons. Although both have been fit and fantastic in 2021, their ages, like Taurasi’s, does make the possibility of injury a real concern.

In short, if there was such skepticism about Ogwumike’s ability to be prepared to play, even as her recovery timeline indicated otherwise, shouldn’t the prospect of an untimely injury to older players with recent injury histories also have been cause for pause?

Considering the history that Taurasi and Bird are poised to make in Tokyo, it seems impossible to imagine their exclusion. Yet, this is part of the problem. It can be assumed that Taurasi and Bird would be given every benefit of the doubt regarding their readiness for the Olympics; Ogwumike was not. And while she is not a four-time Olympian, her experiences with USA Basketball and in the WNBA, as highlighted above, suggest she deserves similar treatment.

Instead, the selection committee decided to evaluate Ogwumike with extreme caution.

Should “loyalty” or “the future” be the No. 1 priority for Team USA?

The approach to Ogwumike is reflective of the contradictory, or at least unclear, ethos of USA Basketball.

Should a proven commitment to USA Basketball most determine who makes the Olympic team, rewarding players for their longterm dedication? Or, should the Olympic team be more future facing, with priority given to up-and-coming players regardless of their prior experience with USA Basketball?

These questions clouded the rosters for the (pre-COVID) Team USA training camp and exhibition games. As noted at the time, that players recovering from recent injuries dominated the training and exhibition rosters was a bit odd. Preparing for what then was expected to be the 2020 Olympic Games, shouldn’t USA Basketball have organized a highly-competitive training atmosphere? In contrast, USA Basketball appeared to prioritize loyalty, allowing players who had a history with Team USA to use the program to rediscover their form rather than invite a greater number of fresher faces.

That was an acceptable approach. Yet, now in the summer of 2021, that spirit of loyalty seems not to have extended to Ogwumike, even though she participated in all 2019, 2020 and 2021 USA Basketball events.

For, USA Basketball also wants to look toward the future, beginning to pass the torch to the next generation of Team USA stalwarts. For the first time ever, three Team USA members are under the age of 24: A’ja Wilson, Ariel Atkins and Napheesa Collier.

While including younger players on the roster has been standard practice for Team USA — from Bird and Taurasi in 2004 to Breanna Stewart in 2016 — the record number of young players is notable, especially when these young players are being rewarded with a spot over a USA Basketball devotee who has yet to make her Olympic debut.

As has been the case in this millennium, Team USA tried to thread the needle between honoring longterm loyalty and looking toward the future, with a slightly more significant tilt toward the future than for previous Olympics. The execution, however, resulted in a knot — Nneka Ogwumike being the only WNBA MVP to never make an Olympic team.

It seems there was a way to avoid this conundrum. Although it has mostly been left unsaid, it can be presumed that most of the critics of Ogwumike’s exclusion would have her replace Collier or Atkins.

That Collier originally was slated to play for Team USA 3x3 points to a seemingly clear solution. Yet, the relationship between the 3x3 and 5x5 Team USAs is a bit unclear, raising even more questions.

The selection process for the Team USA 3x3 squad also deserves scrutiny

In February 2020, USA Basketball announced that Collier, Kelsey Plum, Allisha Gray and Stefanie Dolson would serve as the inaugural Team USA 3x3 qualifying team.

After COVID-19 delayed qualifying, the Olympics, and everything else, Collier was replaced by her UConn bestie, Katie Lou Samuelson, on the 3x3 team. Presumably, based on her strong 2020 WNBA season, Collier “graduated” into to serious consideration for the 5x5 Olympic team. This makes sense; that she was replaced with Samuelson does not.

The Team USA player pool is full of players who have had done much more in their WNBA careers than Samuelson, who is on her third team in three seasons. Why was Samuelson, as well as Plum, Gray and Dolson, named to the 3x3 team? For all the scrutiny about the selection of the 5x5 Team USA squad, the 3x3 team selection is more confounding. That the team includes two UConn alums and one South Carolina alum only further fuels accusations of favoritism and politics.

Even if USA Basketball refuses to comment on player selection, it would be useful to articulate the relationship between the 3x3 and 5x5 Team USAs. Do players in fact “graduate” from 3x3 to 5x5 consideration? Is the 3x3 team envisioned as an incubator for younger players? Do players in the pool decide if they want to be considered for both the 3x3 and 5x5 teams or only the 5x5 team? Since 3x3 and 5x5 hoops are different games, it is understandable if some players, especially older players, were uninterested in 3x3. Yet, knowing what players were under consideration for what team would provide needed clarity.

Instead, only questions abound. Most especially, why wasn’t Collier and/or Atkins named to the 3x3 team, thereby allowing Ogwumike to claim her deserved spot on the 5x5 team?

Moving forward, USA Basketball must implement a reformed, more transparent selection process.

The widespread support for Nneka

While nothing can replace the opportunity to represent one’s country in the Olympic Games, maybe all the support Ogwumike has received — from a LA Sparks legend to her Goon Squad teammate — can, ever so slightly, lift her spirits.