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Nneka Ogwumike Knows Her Place in History

The WNBPA president and Sparks veteran is a beneficiary of Title IX and wants to pay it forward to the next crop of women’s basketball players.

Nneka Ogwumike has played 10 seasons in the WNBA since the Los Angeles Sparks selected her No. 1 overall in 2012. As WNBPA President, she has more influence on women’s basketball than any other active player. It’s a responsibility that she does not take lightly.

Speaking with Boardroom at the adidas hospitality suite during the women’s Final Four, Ogwumike reflected on her career and talked about how those who are coming after her will benefit from the legacy she hopes to leave behind.

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Russell Steinberg: If you could just start off by telling me: What does Title IX mean to you?

Nneka Ogwumike: Title IX is essentially my life because I am a true beneficiary of the fight of such prominent pioneers. And to know a world where the inequities are much less than before is to be very privileged in a lot of ways. So I’m just really grateful to be not only a product of the fight, but also to be a part of it. 

RS: When you see what Adidas is doing with the NIL program that they launched and making it available to everybody, why is that so important? 

NO: There’s so many layers to it. One, it’s such a wonderful way to commemorate and celebrate the 50th anniversary of Title IX. It signifies the continuous fight towards equity in sport. And also with this NIL world that a lot of people are still trying to navigate, it’s great to know that there are brands and organizations that are really trying to get a handle on it in a way that doesn’t disproportionately affect athletes that can really maximize on their value. So I’m excited that it’s happening, and I’m hoping that it’ll set the tone for how others follow to make NIL a little bit less opaque.

RS: Obviously this is a completely different world from when you were in college, and so the experience is a lot different. In addition to NIL, what do student-athletes have to deal with now that you did not?

NO: To date myself, Instagram was popping when I was a senior in college [at Stanford]. So I was just getting the hang of it. It was really just a fun way to express yourself. There were no expectations, but now of course, with individual branding, you can monetize it and really create a comfortable way to get some type of income and also create more relationships with brands and organizations. So I can only imagine what it’s like for players now, you know, you wanna perform at the highest level, you wanna perform in the classroom, you wanna have a social life, of course, but you also wanna have a social media presence, and you wanna be able to be aligned with brands. The life of a college athlete now is probably more complicated and more complex, but finding balance can really help maximize the opportunities available for these student-athletes

RS: Even though you didn’t have NIL opportunities when you were in college, you still had to manage your own brand, in a way. How did you manage to do that?

NO: When I think back about what it was that I needed to do to manage my own branding, that’s really just how you live everyday life. What clubs was I a part of? What did I support? What did my university support? And I was a part of student-athlete union and such.

Now, of course, it wasn’t as outward as it would’ve been if social media was as robust as it is now. But I think the best way that I could really brand myself was even doing interviews in media in those moments when you’re able to answer questions and just express your opinion on what you’re doing on the court. Even though it’s less demanding than it is now, there was still opportunities for me to do that. And I’m glad that I had those learning moments before I became a professional. 

RS: It does seem like you’ve carried a lot of that into your professional career with what you’re doing now. How has the WNBA evolved during your time as a pro? 

NO: Hugely. I mean, honestly, I think that the way that we’re seeing college sports evolve, the WNBA has also found its place in that evolution. A lot of what we were doing when I entered the league was just about, ‘How are you performing? Are you winning? Are you losing? Are you scoring points? Where do you play overseas?’ And ultimately, brands didn’t really extend past your shoe deal.

I think when I was a rookie, Candace [Parker] was the only Adidas women’s basketball athlete. Now, we have a full roster and that evolution has been so distinct. It’s been so obvious. To be a part of it, not just a witness, has been kind of amazing. 

Now, we do see a lot of social media presence with different athletes. They use that to brand themselves, and they use it really to kind of create their own businesses and to express themselves in a way that align with different partnerships, in the same way that you see in college. And maybe with a little bit more autonomy than you see in college, because once you’re a professional, it’s kind of like, OK, what do I want, what do I like, who do I wanna be a part of? What do I wanna represent? Whereas as college athletes, you have that, too, but you still represent an institution. So, it’s just interesting to see how both of them have kind of evolved, but I’d say that it’s kind of happened at the same time as we see more of these younger players coming from college, entering the league.

RS: The WNBA leads the way in a lot of off-court issues, be it social justice or just inequities in the WNBA compared to other sports. Why do you think athletes in the WNBA have taken such a leadership role, and what’s your role as president of the WNBPA?

NO: It’s our life. We don’t speak about what we don’t live about. A lot of what we talk about is what we experience, and how we’ve been moving or mobilizing as a league and as women of this league hasn’t been different. It’s just being heard now, and I think it comes hand-in-hand with like what we were saying — the evolution of name, image, and likeness, and branding and social media and exposure accessibility. That aligns very much so because we are a microcosm of what the world is.

As long as we continue to be ourselves and speak out, it’s gonna end up looking like the bubble season where we really made a severe impact. And now in a lot of ways, we kind of set the example for a lot of different leagues and how they can organize and mobilize. The WNBPA is kind of at the helm of all of that. We represent what the women of this league want, what they want to see change, and how they wanna influence women in sport and the world. It’s kind of amazing to be a part of. You really don’t realize you’re a part of history until much later, and you look back and you’re like, ‘Oh, wow, that’s kind of wild.’

RS: When you look down the road, what do you want to help the WNBPA or the WNBA in general accomplish over the next several years? 

NO: There’s not really a laundry list of anything. I think whatever changes we can make that’s forward. That’s really just what I want. I really want to ensure that along the way, no matter what changes we make, that we continue to nurture and groom a league of women that continue to fight for it. I don’t want there to ever be any moments of complacency and being a part of a league in which we kind of represent the opposite of that. I feel good about where we see our league going, and obviously, the overarching theme is equity. Leaving a league that’s much better than when I entered it is the ultimate goal.

RS: How receptive has the league been to your concerns or other players’ concerns?

NO: I think that has evolved in the most recent years, certainly more receptive, especially during CBA negotiations and the new collective bargaining agreement. I think that it was really cemented after the 2020 season because we really couldn’t get anything done without the players agreeing to stuff. And so, I think the success of that season can be attributed to the receptiveness and the collaboration between the league and the players. And there were some real, real big moments that were behind the scenes that people don’t know about that were scary because we didn’t know what was going on. But very necessary for us to be able to continue on not just in that season in our league, but in the way that we came out of that 2020 season. 

Nneka Ogwumike at adidas “More is Possible” roundtable (Photo by Adam Bettcher/Getty Images for adidas)

RS: And how do you welcome the next class of rookies into the WNBA and get them acclimated and keep them from getting complacent?

NO: When I was first elected president [in 2016], I told myself that I just wanna be a president that is approachable. I want players to want to hit me up and talk to me and express their concerns, express what I’ve done, that maybe they disagree with. How I need to change. How I can lead. I want to be able to be that type of president. It’s nothing that’s really rocket science. I just try to make myself as approachable as possible. I try to lead by listening. And as these players come in, the best part about being president is that I’m kind of friends with everybody — at least I hope that they think so. It’s pretty phenomenal what a lot of these women are doing. And I’m hoping that developing that type of relationship and that fervor that’s gonna have to really sustain our league. 

RS: Along those lines, what do you hear from younger players? What concerns do they have when they come into the league? 

NO: Well, to be honest, a lot of rookies are more concerned about how to be a professional. A lot of times after they get out of their rookie contracts, that’s kind of when they really start expressing their concerns about things that can be better. That still sheds a light on what needs to be done a little bit better because for rookies to not be equipped to know as much as they feel like they need to to be comfortable entering the league, it sheds lights on the resources that we need for rookie orientation and all of those types of resources that are available widely on the men’s side.

Even small things like that speak to the inequities, things that we need to work on. It’s not that the W doesn’t do it or the PA doesn’t do it, but we can learn from this type of feedback. In whatever way I can, and I know whatever way the W and the PA can, they try to give as much information as they can to young players. And then ultimately, once you settle in, you understand, What more do I need to contribute to my well-being?

RS: How did you learn those lessons when you were coming in?

NO: Awesome vets. As long as we keep a league of women that continue to express themselves and be themselves, we’re gonna always have awesome vets.

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