Every four years, the country watches its best and most talented athletes compete on the grandest of world stages to bring the United States an Olympic gold. Everyone knows how that works, but the selection process for athletes to attend is less publicly known and often goes undiscussed.
At least, it does when there isn't a massive controversy over who is attending as is the case in yet another Olympic cycle for USA Basketball. The 12-player roster does not include forward/center Nneka Ogwumike, a key piece to two World Cup golds and one of the eight core national team members in the 2019 pre-Games tour.
The snub of Ogwumike for a third time has drawn criticism from fans, players and coaches, including former teammate Candace Parker and Sparks coach Derek Fisher. It has provoked claims of Connecticut bias and playing politics.
Do either of those things have truth to them? Let's dive in on how the selection process works, why there are so many UConn grads and the largest issue of all: communication.
Selection process: How was Nneka Ogwumike left off 3 rosters?
A group of predetermined persons on the selection committee choose the roster, typically in April of an Olympic year. It is usually to maximize media exposure in the 100 days leading up to the Games, per ESPN. The postponement of the 2020 Games has delayed that selection to this month.
The first roster Ogwumike missed was in 2012 when she was the No. 1 pick out of Stanford in April. There was precedent for Team USA to add No. 1 picks, so placing her on the roster would not have been out of the ordinary. They did it with Diana Taurasi (2004) and Parker (2008). They later did it with Breanna Stewart in 2016.
The second roster was that 2016 one. Ogwumike was named an All-Star and placed on the WNBA's all-defensive team in the season leading up to it, and went on to win the 2016 MVP.
That brings us to the 2020 roster (decided this month) on which Ogwumike was widely considered a lock. All of the eight "core" players were named to the roster except her and Elena Delle Donne, who has not played basketball since October 2019 while rehabbing from two back surgeries.
The only indication fans have been given about this snub is that Ogwumike's knee sprain suffered on June 1 is largely why she was not selected, though that's been denied by family and Fisher.
There have also been calls of hypocrisy on that since Taurasi is also coming off of an injury. She fractured her sternum and the team announced on May 25 she could miss "at least four weeks," putting her on a similar timeline to Ogwumike.
No one is commenting on roster decisions
National team coach Dawn Staley has been the only person to explain the situation, indicating it's the knee issue. But Staley doesn't choose the team.
The five-person committee is currently: USA women's national team director Carol Callan, former player and current Minnesota Lynx assistant Katie Smith, WNBA head of league operations Bethany Donaphin, Connecticut Sun coach Curt Miller and UConn coach/two-time Olympic coach Geno Auriemma.
Miller is the only one regularly made available to media as an in-season WNBA head coach. He deferred to Callan on Tuesday night since Callan is the committee spokesperson. Callan has not, and will not, address the issue because as ESPN's Mechelle Voepel confirmed through USA Basketball, it is policy not to discuss specifics on players who aren't selected.
That is the largest problem this week as the tea keeps whistling. An explanation from those choosing the roster would go a long way in quelling the outrage. That's in stark contract to, for example, U.S. Soccer coach Vlatko Andonovski saying Wednesday he has "100 percent authority" over the roster and answering questions on it.
What happens, then, is comments and theories run amuck.
Is UConn favored in Team USA selection?
Connecticut bias has been thrown around a lot this week, particularly since Auriemma is on the selection committee. Going back through all of the Olympics rosters would take a minute, and we're really only focused on Ogwumike right now.
So here's the rundown of UConn talent on the last four Olympic rosters to answer that big question. Auriemma was not involved in the first, coached the next two, and is on the selection committee this year.
2008: 2 — Sue Bird, Diana Taurasi
2012: 6 — Bird, Taurasi, Swin Cash, Tina Charles, Maya Moore, Asjha Jones
2016: 5 — Bird, Taurasi, Charles, Moore, Breanna Stewart
2020: 5 — Bird, Taurasi, Charles, Stewart, Napheesa Collier
2020 3v3: — Katie Lou Samuelson, Stefanie Dolson (out of four players)
By sheer numbers alone ... this looks to be a problem. Half of the last three rosters have been UConn alumna. And if the committee isn't talking about the close-call roster cuts, then stuff like "it's UConn bias" are going to blow up big on social media.
Allow us to be the devil's advocate on that one. UConn didn't become a consistent national power until the 2000s and began bringing in No. 1 recruits year after year. The star players from their string of title years (2002-04, 09-10, 13-16) would understandably make Olympic rosters based on talent in college and the WNBA. That's a talent pool no other program has right now.
Not to mention that Bird and Taurasi are going for record-setting Olympic appearances as WNBA careers lengthen. That's two almost automatic roster spots taken away from younger players, or ones who have been in the system and proved themselves over and over again.
Fine. Who would you leave home?
This isn't easy. As Parker said Tuesday night, if the U.S. sent three teams to the Olympics, it could win gold, silver and bronze. The talent pool is that deep and the choices between players are tight ones.
Much of building a roster has to do with who will play well together as a team and that means the best players are sometimes left off. Or there are players ahead of them at the position who are better and fit the squad's needs.
Sue Bird is a GOAT, and deserves her roster spot, but because she's been America's point guard since 2006, there isn't room for other greats like Chelsea Gray, who will make her first Olympic appearance this summer, and Courtney Vandersloot, who left to play for Hungary.
Everyone on the roster deserves to be on the roster. But Ogwumike deserves it, too, and her window is closing. She turns 31 on July 2, and by the 2024 Games, she will be 35. Cleary, that's not exclusionary on its own. But fans at least deserve to know why big-time snubs of incredibly talented superstars are happening every cycle.
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