I, for one, will be rooting for Becky Hammon and team Russia when it comes to Olympic basketball this summer. And just to clarify something right off the bat: I’m not Russian and I am patriotic. I thought I’d explain that early on, because judging by how Hammon has been scorned as of late, the American public seems ready to jump to irresponsible conclusions.
When team USA’s 23-player roster was released, Hammon’s name was conspicuously absent, despite her stats being at least comparable, if not better than several players who did make the list. Hammon was also the runner-up MVP for the WNBA last season, where she plays for the San Antonio Silver Stars. When the roster size was expanded, she was later added and invited to try out for the team, hoping to make the 12-player final roster. However, Hammon declined this invitation because she had meanwhile been offered a very lucrative deal with the Russian club CSKA Moscow to play professionally during the WNBA’s offseason. This decision led to her inability to try out for the U.S. team and here’s why:
By signing with CSKA Moscow, Hammon was fast-tracked to get a Russian passport, and was subsequently offered a spot on the Russian national Olympic team. The Russian passport was not just a ticket to the Olympics for Hammon. Her dual-citizenship increased the value of her CSKA Moscow contract substantially; dual-citizens are highly coveted by the Russian league because its rules limit the number of foreign players they are allowed to employ, and players like Hammon can conveniently side-step this rule with a Russian passport. So, then it became a matter of straight-up probability. Does she take the sure thing: a guaranteed spot on the Russian team, or turn that down and gamble on a long-shot: making the U.S. 12-player team, for which she was only invited to try out after the invite list had been expanded beyond its original 23. She did not feel that she had a legitimate chance to make the team, and like most athletes, the idea of competing in the Olympics is too good to pass up.
Until the IOC changes its rules and requires more than just a passport to indicate nationality, there can be no ill-will harbored towards Becky Hammon. Is the fact that she’s playing for Russia part of the problem? Are we as a country still feeling the pent-up hostility from the Cold War? As Hammon so eloquently stated: “The option for me to play for USA Basketball really wasn't an option. ... I don't think people would be as upset if I was playing for Switzerland. God loves Russia just as much as God loves America.”
Plus, let’s not forget that this might not be an issue if Americans treated women’s sports and female athletes the same as their male counterparts. The team salary cap for the 2008 WNBA season is $772,000 which averages out to about $64,000 per player. Becky Hammon signed a 4-year contract for $2million with CSKA Moscow. Can you blame her for making the decision? She’s a basketball player by profession and she wants to get paid for what she does. Compare 64K with what the average NBA player makes. As long as women’s athletics is regarded as a second-rate endeavor, and until female athletes in this country are paid at least somewhat comparably to men, nobody can judge how Becky Hammon or anyone else chooses to pursue her own career.
I don’t know Becky Hammon and I don’t know exactly what her decision-making process was. I only know what I’ve read about her circumstances and what I’ve seen in the interviews she’s given. This is purely speculation, but what if Hammon made millions in this country every season? She might not be compelled to seek a contract overseas during hiatus, particularly in a country that shares no lineage with her family history. Then she wouldn’t have a Russian passport and she may have felt like trying out for the U.S. Olympic team would have been an exciting opportunity, despite being a little disgruntled that she was considered so last-minute.
Rather than condemning Becky Hammon for wanting to play basketball, we should be applauding Russia for rewarding its female athletes so generously, and looking our own nation in the mirror and asking why we don’t.