By: Jeffrey Newholm
A well known Greek story is that of Prometheus, who stole fire from the Gods and gave it to man. His punishment for breaking the Gods’ monopoly on power was to be chained to a rock for eternity. It seems that in America, all these thousands of years later, those in power still hold it with an iron grip, and will exclude outsiders who threaten it. This seems to be the case today in women’s basketball, where the WNBA’s own titan Candace Parker, a former Tennessee Volunteer, was shockingly left off the Olympic team. The team’s coach? Uconn coach Geno Auriemma. If you’ve been following NBS for a while you know that I’m a die-hard Husky fan. So, honestly, my first reaction when Parker was left off? “Oh, well too bad.” Was it a mean-spirited thing to think? Well of course it was, but that’s the kind of fan I am. The Huskies are the bullies of the women’s game, and by being their fan I can be a bully too (although, truth be told, I don’t have anything to do with the team’s success). It’s a powerful human drive to have dominion over others, and those who achieve it usually abuse their power. But after some reflection I think Geno and the committee have this decision dead wrong. I’ll take a look at why Parker deserves to be on the team, who the culprit is behind the decision, and what it all means.
It’s true that only 12 players can make the team, and there’s sure to be some griping no matter who gets left out. But Parker seemed to be a shoo-in. She was a major contributor on the last two Olympic gold teams, and last year seemed to be playing very well. She sat out the first half of the year for rest, and her Sparks team went 3-13 in that stretch. The rest of the year she averaged 19 points and 10 rebounds a game, the Sparks finished 11-7 and were a very tough out in the playoffs. I’ve read that it was a youth movement to get rookie Breanna Stewart in the lineup, but I think there’s plenty of room for both. To use just one example, Lindsay Whalen averaged 12 points and four boards a game last year for the Lynx. She averages 12 points a game for her career. It seems hard to argue for me that she was more deserving than Parker. I’d even say it’s a stretch to put Angel McCoughtry and Seimone Augustus in over Parker, if for no other reason than Parker’s name recognition and marketability (remember, the Olympics are a great way to market the struggling women’s professional game). So it’s clearly a false dichotomy to say there’s just no room for Parker because of Stewart. I think there’s something more sinister about this than just numbers and “best fit”, the committee’s excuse. And that brings me to Geno.
During most of Geno’s career the Huskies were a contender, but they certainly didn’t have a monopoly on the game. Pat Summitt’s Vols were every bit as good as Uconn. When the Vols won the 2008 title, they had eight titles to the Huskies’ five. Since then, the Vols have not returned to the Final Four due in large part to Summitt’s tragic dementia. Between 2011 and 2013, Notre Dame was the Huskies’ big foil, beating Uconn seven out of eight times, including twice in the Final Four. The last three years, however, Uconn has been unpeered, going 116-1 and finishing an unprecedented foutpeat. Geno is the king of the women’s basketball world, and as of right now there aren’t any serious challengers. So if Geno wants five of his players on the Olympic team and just one Vol (there would be an outrage if Tamika Catchings didn’t make it), who is the committee to say no? To be fair: Geno does not officially the make the call. There’s a separate committee that makes the personal decisions. But I worry that the committee, like our country’s electoral college, is just a rubber stamp. I think Geno had a lot to do with this. He may be on record praising Summitt and Tennessee, but deep down inside he still feels a lot of animosity for his old rival (even though the teams haven’t played each other in years). There’s no way to prove it for sure, but I think this is a fair speculation. So, what does this all mean?
One could argue this incident will hurt Geno’s reputation, but I don’t think that really matters. Geno clearly doesn’t care what others think about him, has good job security and won’t be coaching for much longer anyways. This is almost certainly his last turn as Olympic coach. Some say the silver lining is Parker will come out with a chip on her shoulder and play inspired this year. I can see this being true in the short term. But as I’ve written before, I think, in the four months until the playoffs, hedonic adaptation will set in. Parker will eventually get over being left off the team, and whatever bitterness she feels over this (she has taken the high road in her public statements) will abate. And that’s best for her long term health, though it may not make for as fun a storyline. There’s no need to shame or ridicule Geno (and certainly not his Olympic players)-he did what anyone with too much power would do. As the classic saying goes, “Power tends to corrupt, and absolute power corrupts absolutely”. The lack of parity in the women’s game created an imbalance in power, with one team-and one man-in complete control. But the good news is this isn’t our eternal fate. Parker, and average women’s basketball fans, are not forever chained to a rock of bondage.
In the short term, a team like Notre Dame or Baylor could end the Huskies’ 75 game winning streak or knock them off in the playoffs so a new champion can finally be crowned. Last year was an encouraging sign for parity in the game, with three teams making their first Final Four appearance. If Notre Dame or Maryland (who has a stupendous recruiting class) can string together a few titles, perhaps Brenda Frese or Muffet McGraw could start to command influence in the same ballpark as Geno. And no matter what, Geno’s dominance will only last a little while longer. No matter who the Huskies’ new coach is, he or she will not have the same history of success or the same snarky temperament as Geno. Uconn could still be a power, but the new coach would not call all the shots in the women’s game. But for now, fans just have to stew in the disappointment of a great player being treated unfairly. I love the Huskies to death, but in the end, as Spock so eloquently put it in Star Trek II: “the needs of the many, outweigh the needs of the few, or the one”. Geno was put in charge of the Olympic game, and needed to take the consideration of the entire game into consideration. By leaving Parker out, he failed to do this. Sorry Geno, but: you made the wrong call.
You can follow me on Twitter @JeffreyNewholm and our blog @NutsAndBoltsSP.