Bigger stars than Caitlin Clark have gone unchosen for an Olympics team

After The Athletic leaked what is believed to be USA Women’s basketball roster for the Olympics in Paris, many fans of Indiana Fever shooting guard Caitlin Clark were quick to call her exclusion a “snub.” Christine Brennan, a sports columnist for USA Today, wrote on X, “Having covered the Olympics for 40 years (gulp), I’ve seen some bad team and athlete selection decisions. This is the worst. Makes absolutely no sense for a women’s sport that would have been catapulted onto the world stage in the greatest way possible with Clark.” 

But Clark wasn’t snubbed. She just didn’t make it onto a roster put together by current women’s basketball executives, retired WNBA champions and former Olympians who, in trying to secure Team USA’s 8th consecutive gold medal, prioritized experience on the professional international stage over notoriety and cultural clout.

Clark wasn’t snubbed. She just didn’t make it onto a roster put together by current women’s basketball executives, retired WNBA champions, and former Olympians who prioritized experience on the professional international stage over notoriety and cultural clout.

Referring to February’s Olympic Qualifying tournament, on Saturday ESPN basketball analyst Andraya Carter said, “Most of the women who made this team competed in Belgium, they’re familiar with each other, played in camp together.” She continued, “And that familiarity, especially because the competition internationally has gone up, has skyrocketed. The familiarity with the team has to be something that the committee took into consideration when they put this team together.”

The final USA Basketball camp, to which Clark was invited, took place as she and her Iowa Hawkeyes were competing in NCAA’s Final Four. In April, before this year’s WNBA season tipped off, The Associated Press reported that her early play as a professional would “serve as her tryout” for a spot on the final Olympic roster. 

Again, she didn’t make the squad — neither did other WNBA players who are putting up All-Star-caliber numbers this season but it’s not because she wasn’t given heavy consideration. She told reporters on Sunday that she got the news personally from USA Basketball.

The Athletic noted in its report that Clark is one of three likely alternates if any of the presumed 12 players isn’t healthy enough to compete. The other two are Aliyah Boston, her Fever teammate, and Connecticut Sun center Brionna Jones. 

Breanna Stewart, the WNBA’s reigning MVP, made the Olympic roster that won gold in Rio de Janeiro eight years ago when she was a rookie. However, her selection had a lot to do with how familiar she was with that year’s coach. That year’s USA Women’s National Team was led by UConn women’s basketball coach Geno Aurriemma. Stewart had played for Auriemma for four seasons, and she had won the national championship in every one of them. And, even then, Stewart was not a starter or an impact player on 2016’s Olympics squad. In the semi-finals game against France, she played less than three minutes.

Given the scrutiny the WNBA has been subjected to since Clark joined the best women’s professional basketball league in the world, and given the tired narrative that WNBA players should be thanking her rather than competing against her, how would media companies react to Clark being chosen for the Olympic team and then riding the bench throughout? My prediction, which has a lot of evidence to back it up, is not well. 

United States women basketball players pose with their gold medals
United States players pose with their gold medals during the medal ceremony for women’s basketball at the 2020 Summer Olympics on Aug. 8, 2021, in Saitama, Japan. Charlie Neibergall / AP file

Reeve would constantly be fielding questions about why Clark’s minutes are low and what she could do to earn more. That’s what happened when New York Liberty star guard Sabrina Ionescu made it onto USA Basketball’s World Cup Team in 2022. During the World Cup Final in Sydney, Ionescu played a hair over five minutes and scored no points.

Ionescu has taken part in all the USA Basketball mini camps that she could during this selection cycle. She stayed patient, put the work in and learned what Reeve’s system demanded as she developed  chemistry with a lot of the other players in the pool. Ionescu made this year’s 12-player roster.

Also, don’t forget when Rebecca Lobo was a highly touted rookie who was thrown onto then-coach Tara VanDerVeer’s 1996 Olympic team. The media took note of her limited playing time, which created what San Francisco Chronicle sports columnist Ann Killion describes as “an uncomfortable situation” for all involved.

“Our mission is individual talent is great, but how do we become the best team we could be and that’s what we are focused on…” Reeve said on May 3 during an interview with FOX 9, a Minnesota local television network. “…All the other countries spend a lot of time together. They take off the summer and they don’t play in the WNBA so they can get their teams together and you know teams with some chemistry and some talent, that’s going to be hard for us.”

The team winning an eighth consecutive gold matters much more than anything else. 

As Louisa Thomas rightly points out in The New Yorker, “everyone feels like they have a stake” in the Clark discourse. And that everyone includes politicians like former presidential candidate Nikki Haley. When did she have a stake in the world of women’s basketball? And why now?

How come there wasn’t a huge uproar from people with influence outside of the women’s basketball space when Candace Parker, one of the greatest positionless players of all time, was left off the roster in 2016, the roster that Stewart made? What about 2021, when WNBA Players Association president and former league MVP Nneka Ogwumike was left off the roster that went to Tokyo? 

Questions that weren’t asked then are being asked now because of  “The Caitlin Clark Effect,” which essentially is the argument that whatever Clark touches or whenever she plays, people pay to follow. And while Clark has an effect on business within women’s sports, she is far from the only force that has created the women’s basketball boom. That boom began before the 2024 rookie class which includes Clark, Angel Reese, Kamilla Cardoso and Cameron Brink.

There’s been a steady growth in interest in women’s basketball since the most recent Olympics. In 2021, the women’s basketball gold medal game between USA and Japan, a blowout, averaged 7.8 million viewers. Those who claim no one will watch without Clark in the Olympics aren’t telling the truth. 

“We’re seeing this confluence of positive elements that are feeding off of the success of last year, which was our most watched season ever in 21 years,” WNBA Chief Growth officer Collie Eddison told ESPN’s Katie Barnes. “For all of our key metrics, we broke records last season.”

After covering women’s basketball at the Olympics for over 40 years and not seeing that growth reflected in the Olympic coverage, Brennan is right to be frustrated. The difference is that in 2024 the perception of women’s basketball and its notoriety has changed — and has changed quite dramatically since Tokyo.

In three years, the world has learned a lot more about what women’s basketball is about. Brittney Griner was unrightfully detained in Russia and gained national attention, the WNBA’s free agency period created its own super team era, and college players have been taking advantage of name, image and likeness in ways that weren’t possible 10 years ago.

When Clark was asked Sunday about not making this Olympic team, she said it “will be fun” to watch the 12 who did make Team USA compete in Paris. “I’m going to be rooting them on to win gold,” she said.

We all should.

Then, for the next Olympics in 2028, when Clark hopefully has grown as a pro and gains experience, she’ll be able to help the USA go for yet another gold. And then we can root for her too. 

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