What Nneka Ogwumike’s Olympic Snub Means For Team USA

Team USA’s women’s basketball roster for the Tokyo Olympics was announced on Monday with one glaring omission. In a shocking move, Nneka Ogwumike, the 30-year-old Los Angeles Sparks star who was the WNBA’s MVP in 2016, was left off the roster. The forward suffered a left knee injury on June 3, but in five games this season has averaged 16.4 points on 58.6 percent shooting with 7.0 rebounds. She’s the only MVP not to make an Olympic roster.

“It really breaks my heart that Nneka is not on this team,” head coach Dawn Staley said, according to ESPN’s Mechelle Voelpel. “I mean, if we had to make a decision a month from now … I’m sure she would be healthy. I know this is one of the things that she wanted to do. She came to every training camp, she’s been a great voice in our training camp and our practices. We’re definitely going to miss Nneka.

“I do feel for the players who were with us the last three or four years [as part of the senior national team pool] and didn’t make the roster. It’s not anything against who they are … it’s just hard to get down to 12. Every four years we do this, and it gets more difficult.”

Ogwumike’s sister, Erica, pushed back on the idea that Nneka’s injury played a role in the decision, and her sister and Sparks teammate, Chiney, stated that “her timeline worked PERFECTLY to return to play for the Olympics.” Nneka was expected to miss four-to-six weeks with the knee sprain, which even at its latest point would’ve had her cleared by July 15. She’s suffered no set-backs since. The games are slated to begin in Tokyo on July 26.

So what happened?

Ogwumike’s absence was especially surprising because she had the resume and the extracurriculars. She won MVP for Team USA in the FIBA Olympic qualifying tournament in 2020, and also won gold medals at the FIBA World Cup in 2014 and 2018. She was also the only player of the original eight invitees except Elena Delle Donne – who is sidelined long-term due to injury – to play in Team USA’s college tour against top-ranked schools in 2019 and not make the cut. The six other participants: Sue Bird, Diana Taurasi, Skylar Diggins-Smith, Chelsea Gray, A’ja Wilson and Sylvia Fowles, did.

Every Olympic cycle, someone is snubbed from the roster. That’s the nature of having just 12 spots on a team all of the best players in the world want to compete for. Candace Parker’s cut in 2016 was especially controversial, but Ogwumike’s absence from the team is leaving a particular bad feeling for women’s basketball fans.

Regardless of how Ogwumike finishes out her career, which is already loaded with every accolade in the book including a WNBA championship, she’ll be remembered as an elite competitor and one of the game’s most important leaders. As president of the Women’s National Basketball Players’ Association, she’s overseen negotiations for the most lucrative collective bargaining agreement the league has ever seen, stood for social justice causes, and led the league’s 144 players through a “bubble” season during the Covid-19 pandemic.

Ogwumike is one of the faces of women’s basketball for reasons on and off the court.

What is everyone around the league saying?

There are questions about why Ogwumike’s injury would’ve withheld her from the Olympic roster while Diana Taurasi, who has been sidelined since May 21 due to a fracture in her sternum, was still picked. It’s since been updated that Taurasi is expected to return to play on Sunday, but she’s been sidelined for a month. Could Team USA have given Ogwumike a roster spot and allowed her to bow out of the Olympics if she wasn’t ready in time?

Shortly after the announcement, Erica Ogwumike shared her thoughts on Twitter:

Chiney followed:

Then former WNBA player Devereaux Peters sounded off on the entire Team USA program:

Sparks coach Derek Fisher also expressed his frustrations, calling it “a freaking travesty.”

What happens now?

Team USA is likely to win its seventh consecutive Olympic gold. Even without Ogwumike, the team is stacked with A’ja Wilson, Breanna Stewart, Skylar Diggins-Smith, Sue Bird, Diana Taurasi, Jewell Loyd, Tina Charles, Brittney Griner, Sylvia Fowles, Napheesa Collier, and Ariel Atkins. Staley is an excellent coach and no team in the world should be able to compete USA’s talent.

But for the second consecutive Olympic cycle (the first of which was under head coach Geno Auriemma), the USA program is taking a ton of flak for a roster decision which — if Parker’s fallout was any indication — could end with Ogwumike’s unwillingness to play. And they may need her. This is likely Bird and Taurasi’s final Olympics, and in 2024, Fowles will be 38 years old.

“It’s trash, ” Peters said on Twitter, “they’re trash and honestly I wouldn’t be mad or surprised if players just start saying F it and passed on them all together. And quite frankly I hope they do cuz they dead ass wrong year in and year out.”