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Why the conversation about Chiney Ogwumike’s trade to Los Angeles continues

Intentional or not, ongoing debate about Ogwumike’s jump from Connecticut to Los Angeles works to police her ambition.

The Women’s Sports Foundation’s 38th Annual Salute To Women In Sports Awards Gala - Inside
Chiney Ogwumike’s trade to the Sparks has inspired criticism and debate in ways that Lindsay Whalen’s and Tina Charles’ departures from the Sun did not.
Photo by Michael Loccisano/Getty Images for Women’s Sports Foundation

It’s been almost three weeks since the biggest #wojbomb in the history of the WNBA dropped: The Connecticut Sun had traded former No. 1 pick and rising media star Chiney Ogwumike to the Los Angeles Sparks for a 2020 first-round pick, uniting Ogwumike with sister Nneka — and fellow All-Stars Candace Parker and Chelsea Gray — to create Los Angeles’s only basketball superteam.

Since then, the consternation about Ogwumike’s move to L.A. only has increased. Why is this the case?

Player movement in the WNBA is not rare

Compared to the NBA, where the chaos of player movement is a constant, the WNBA features few trade demands and little free agency drama.

Yet, Chiney Ogwumike is far from the first W star to seek to steer the course of her career. Every year or so, a prominent player successfully has pressed her franchise for a trade. In fact, the Connecticut Sun has seen stars depart twice before. After the 2009 season, Lindsay Whalen would work her way to the Minnesota Lynx. Then, a little more than four years later, Tina Charles would be traded to the New York Liberty.

It is understandable that the Sun franchise and fans would be upset about having to send yet another star to a larger market. But while Whalen’s and Charles’ moves primarily inspired appreciation for their time in Connecticut, Ogwumike’s desires have activated much agitation. It is worth exploring why the trades of Whalen and Charles were perceived much differently than Ogwumike’s recent move.

Why it was okay for Lindsay Whalen to request a trade

In 2004, the Connecticut Sun drafted Lindsay Whalen, the small-town Minnesota girl who led the Gophers to their first Final Four, with the fourth pick. The Lynx, who had the sixth pick, had aspired to allow Whalen to continue her career in her home state.

Nonetheless, Connecticut embraced Whalen as one of their own, especially as she led the Sun to the WNBA Finals during her rookie and sophomore seasons. Whalen would also continue to improve under the tutelage of then-Sun head coach Mike Thibault, establishing herself as one of the league’s premier point guards. In 2008, Whalen notched her most successful season, making First Team All-WNBA and finishing as the runner-up in MVP voting.

Nonetheless, ultimate team success remained elusive. With the Sun facing a rebuild in 2009 following a 17-17 season, the franchise offered to send her back to Minnesota. The return likely satisfied Sun fans, as they received former University of Connecticut Husky Renee Montgomery and the No. 1 pick, who also would be a Husky in Tina Charles, in exchange for Whalen.

Nevertheless, the departure of arguably the greatest player in franchise history did not inspire debate. Upon her recent retirement, Whalen continued to receive much credit for creating the current Sun foundation.

Whalen has earned such appreciation because her return to Minnesota fulfilled a certain women’s sport script aligned with the “suburban girl-child” identity, theorized by sociologists C.L. Cole and Michael Giardina. Characterized by white middle-class normativity, this identity presents women athletes as safe, amenable role models. Scholar Tara McPherson likewise has argued that “traditional discourses of femininity, particularly those tied to notions of the familial and the domestic, do work to recontextualize the women of the WNBA.”

By returning to play in her home state, Whalen’s basketball story satisfied deeply entrenched cultural narratives about women’s sport.

Thus, even as she became the driver of a dynasty, she modeled the “suburban girl-child.” A Minnesota gal winning for Minnesota, she continued to offer an unthreatening, unimpeachable example of women’s athletic ambition.

As Lynx head coach Cheryl Reeve said to Sports Illustrated:

“Lindsay is an incredibly selfless person. She understands what she means to people, she never wants to take that for granted and she’s always willing to give of herself.”

Why it was okay for Tina Charles to request a trade

Unlike Whalen, Charles lacks the privileges of whiteness that almost automatically would allow her basketball story to earn approval. Yet, Charles also abided by appropriate cultural scripts when she sought to take her talents outside Uncasville.

As noted, Whalen’s departure resulted in Charles’ arrival. And, like Whalen, Charles soon would display elite individual skill, while also guiding the Sun to significant success. After racking up an array of awards in her first two seasons, she captured the ultimate one in her third season, claiming the 2012 WNBA MVP award. However, the native of Queens increasingly desired to play for her hometown team — especially after the Sun dismissed Mike Thibault following the 2012 season only to miss the playoffs under his replacement, Anne Donovan, in 2013.

Charles indicated she was willing to exercise all the agency she had in order to find her way to NYC, threatening to sit out the 2014 season if the Sun did not honor her preference. The Sun did so, sending her to the Liberty for Alyssa Thomas, Kelsey Bone and New York’s 2015 first-round pick.

Yet, Charles mostly avoided intense criticism for her departure because of the familial focus that drove her desire for a change. As McPherson explains:

“[W]e can also read the familial narratives that populate discussions of the WNBA as more than simply attempts to recontextualize muscular women within the space of domesticity. While they may be that, they are also racialized narratives, intent on embracing a domesticated and embodied version of black femininity at the expense of the agency and histories of actual women.”

By emphasizing her intent to play basketball close to her family, Charles made her agency more acceptable. Her move was defined by daughterly devotion. After the trade, Charles shared:

“Growing up, my mom took me to Liberty games. I would see Rebecca Lobo, Becky Hammon, Teresa Weatherspoon. My AAU team would play [in the Garden] during halftime. So this is just a big dream for me.”

Charles’ significant charity activities have also coded her as an acceptable woman athlete. Highlighted by her Hopey’s Heart Foundation, established in honor of her aunt, Charles demonstrates, in the words of McPherson, the “caring, cooperation and spirit” that together encourage the ambition of black women to be seen as safe.

Why it was not okay for Chiney Ogwumike to request a trade

Soon after sending Charles to New York City, the Sun selected Chiney Ogwumike with the No. 1 pick in the 2014 WNBA Draft. Unlike Whalen and Charles, Ogwumike has not enjoyed a relatively seamless ascent into the WNBA’s elite.

After a Rookie of the Year season in 2014, Ogwumike missed the following season due to micro-fracture knee surgery. In 2016, she won the WNBA’s Comeback Player of the Year award only to again have her career jump off course in 2017, when she tore her Achilles. Last season, she secured her first All-Star selection, all while continuing to establish herself as an intelligent and engaging media personality with ESPN. Ahead of the 2019 season, it appears Ogwumike desired to advance both her basketball and media aspirations, something she determined she best could achieve in Los Angeles.

As clear in her Twitter message, Ogwumike has sought to center her family in her basketball story. Nevertheless, her decision has been deemed to exceed the acceptable woman athlete narrative. Even though she will be suiting up alongside her older sister, evidence, especially her new deal with ESPN, suggests her media career mostly motivated her move to Los Angeles. This clear objective appears to have encouraged criticism.

The WNBA has promoted itself as ready to celebrate women who “make way.” Yet, Ogwumike’s effort to “make [her] way” to Los Angeles has not resulted in a celebration of her intentions. Instead, the rumors and rumblings that continue to surround her arrival in L.A. suggest a discomfort with Ogwumike’s evident ambition.

As documented in detail by High Post Hoops, the women’s basketball Twittersphere has remained abuzz with debates about the supposed hows and whys of the Sun’s trade of Ogwumike.

In particular, Sun President Amber Cox has shown herself willing to litigate and legislate the trade, engaging in Twitter exchanges with fans in ways that impugn Ogwumike’s motivations.

Cox resorts to the tired tropes of loyalty that long have been used to criticize athletes who have elected to exercise their agency. The Sun’s reported belief that Ogwumike was willing to sacrifice her WNBA career and work full-time for ESPN if she was not traded also works to cast her as selfish, criticizing her for not possessing unconditional commitment to Connecticut.

Of course, some of the Sun’s defensiveness likely stems from a desire to justify the relatively light return they received for Ogwumike, only a 2020 first-round pick from a likely playoff team.

However, the Sun’s coming salary cap crunch makes the underwhelming exchange more understandable. As intimated by Ogwumike and her agent Allison Galer, it is possible that the Sun already were contemplating off-loading Ogwumike. It also is worth noting that Ogwumike, primarily due to injury, was not as successful with the Sun as Whalen and Charles, seemingly making moving her easier to stomach for the squad.

These details confirm that the continued reaction to the Ogwumike trade can better be explained by the ways in which her desires do not fit an established, appropriate script. Ogwumike’s move to Los Angeles is not a gauzy homecoming story. Instead, she is a young, striving black woman, seeking to get ahead both on and off the court. As she expressed in her recent short documentary with UNINTERRUPTED, “Becoming More”:

“Why not explore the ultimate boundaries? Like, to me, it’s a mission. I want people to understand that WNBA players are capable of more. Female athletes are capable of more. Women of color are capable of more.”

WNBA teams must practice what they preach

For all its proclaimed progressiveness, women’s basketball culture remains wedded to outmoded expectations that implicitly police women’s ambitions.

As demonstrated by Whalen, now the head coach of her alma mater, and Charles, a film director with the Tribeca Film Festival on her résumé, the women of the WNBA can achieve great things even as they follow expectations.

However, women should not have to follow such expectations. The demand that women primarily present themselves in ways that fulfill familial roles serves to preserve status quo racial, gender and sexual hierarchies.

The continued conversation that has surrounded Chiney Ogwumike as she has made her way to Los Angeles (as well as the recent resolution of the Liz Cambage situation) should spark a questioning of the norms that have worked to discourage the ambition that WNBA supposedly seeks to encourage.