World basketball governing body on Wednesday denied WNBA players Nneka Ogwumike and Elizabeth Williams the right to play for the Nigerian national team at the Tokyo Olympics.
FIBA said it had rejected the players’ requests to play for Nigeria due to their more than 10-year “substantial involvement” with USA Basketball.
But the move contradicts FIBA’s mandate to try to develop women’s football globally. And instead of adding two talented Nigerian Americans to a team from a continent that has never won an Olympic medal in men’s or women’s basketball and pave the way for three sisters to adapt to Nigeria – Nneka’s younger sisters, Chiney and Erica Ogwumike, are expected to play for the Nigerian team – instead FIBA have ignored their own provision which allows for such exceptions.
On its website, FIBA states that a large part of the organization’s mission is “the unification of the community, as well as the promotion and development of sport”. And that the three current strategic priorities of FIBA are “the empowerment of national federations, the promotion of women in basketball and the enlargement of the FIBA family”.
All of this would apply to clearing Ogwumike and Williams on the Nigeria squad.
It is true that FIBA has stricter rules for the eligibility of national teams than some governing bodies of other sports. If, at the age of 17, a player has represented the team of a nation in a FIBA sanctioned event, that player is not allowed to play for another country in such event. Nneka Ogwumike was a longtime member of the USA team, winning gold in two FIBA World Cup competitions with the Americans. Williams also competed for USA Basketball.
But FIBA rules leave a loophole that should be large enough to allow the participation of both players – and for reasons that fully correspond to the aforementioned goals and priorities of FIBA. FIBA Secretary General Andreas Zagklis can authorize a player to compete for his home nation if “it is in the interest of the development of basketball in that country”.
How about the development of basketball across an entire continent? FIBA Africa is the only one of the five FIBA confederations to have never won an Olympic medal in men’s or women’s basketball. Would the opportunity to have two former WNBA All-Stars and college All-Americans play for the country where their parents were born – and for which they are dual nationals and have visited frequently – not have- Doesn’t it make sense in terms of both Nigerians and African Basketball Development?
Add to that that Nneka and her sisters – Chiney, like Nneka, is a former WNBA No. 1 draft pick who was an All-American at Stanford, while Erica was a star at Rice University – are missing the opportunity to represent their country together. Isn’t that the heartwarming story and the kind of positive publicity FIBA should want?
Some might say that FIBA rules are necessary to prevent teams from using “bells” or to protect the so-called integrity of national teams. But what decade are we living in? For years now, American athletes in many Olympic sports have been able to achieve national status in other countries for a variety of reasons – whether it be having family ties with those countries or simply being there. play professionally. The latter was how former WNBA player Becky Hammon played for Russia at the 2008 Olympics and how current Seattle Storm player Epiphanny Prince also competed for the Russian team, although she did not play in the Olympics.
The big deal for FIBA here, however, is the time Nneka Ogwumike and Williams have spent with USA Basketball. But if USA Basketball doesn’t have a problem with them playing elsewhere – both were released by this organization – why should FIBA do it? Chances are, these are other countries that don’t want to see the Nigeria squad add two WNBA post players who are still in their prime. So much for the “unifier” of the basketball community.
Also consider that every player currently on the Nigerian team’s women’s roster has played college basketball in the United States. Some grew up in Nigeria, others in the United States. But all of them feel a strong connection to this country because it is part of their heritage, just like Williams and the Ogwumikes.
Why didn’t Williams and Nneka Ogwumike play for the Nigerian team to start? Because both wanted the opportunity to compete for the best women’s international basketball program, which is understandable. Team USA will attempt their seventh consecutive gold medal in Tokyo.
Americans have more talent than they know what to do with; just look at the WNBA All-Stars’ 93-85 victory over Team USA in Wednesday’s All-Star Game. Since 1996, Team USA has lost only once in international competition, in the semifinals of the 2006 FIBA Women’s World Cup. Is it such a bad thing if another country benefits from the wealth of American basketball skills?
Ogwumike, a Stanford graduate, and Williams, a Duke graduate, are everything you could ask of the Olympians. Ogwumike is the chairman of the executive committee of the WNBA players union. She and Williams have been the primary spokespersons for the league’s social justice initiatives. Ogwumike admitted she was injured when she wasn’t on the USA squad this year, as many expected, but decided to move on and find another option.
FIBA had the opportunity to weigh all the factors; reflect on one’s own declared mission; and allow two players to represent a country that means a lot to them and help advance that country’s global footprint in sport. FIBA could have done something sane on so many levels. The governing body of basketball has chosen a different path.