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Is Participation in the WNIT the Right Choice for Our Student-Athletes?

Last night the UCLA women's basketball team accepted an invitation to play in the WNIT as the Pac-12's automatic qualifier. But is this the right outcome for the student-athletes that represent the program?

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"The coach is first of all a teacher." - John Wooden

After UCLA's loss to Arizona in the Pac-12 tournament on Saturday, the debate at Bruins Nation about whether or not we should play in the NIT intensified. The Bruins Nation community discussed the pros and cons of participating in the NIT in DCBruins' excellent News Roundup following our tournament exit, and we had a similar conversation in bruinfollower's thought-provoking fanpost.

I won't attempt to summarize the recurring themes in the conversation. I didn't get the sense that a consensus opinion exists, nor did I get the feeling that those engaged in the debate were likely to be persuaded to change their minds. However, with the surprise selection of the UCLA men's basketball team as an NCAA tournament participant, interest in debating the principle of playing in the "next best" tournament waned quickly.

But the opportunity to talk about same issues again surfaced when the UCLA women's basketball team was selected to play in the WNIT as the Pac-12's automatic qualifier. There can be no doubt as to where Coach Close stands on accepting a WNIT bid:
We are really excited about the prospect of playing in the WNIT.
That's not a sentiment I share, I'm afraid. But before I explain, let me take a moment to describe the journey of Coach Close's team this season.

The Bruins entered the season ranked 23rd nationally in both the AP and USA Today polls. The Bruins were selected to finish fourth in a very strong Pac-12 conference, and they pulled in the top recruiting class in 2014. The program seemed to be moving in the right direction. Unfortunately, results fell far short of expectations. The Bruins (13-18, 8-10) stumbled to a sixth place finish in the Pac-12, and even a heroic effort against Stanford in the conference tournament couldn't make up for the lingering disappointment of a season that promised much more.

There are many things about Coach Close that I admire. For example, she is a Wooden disciple, and she actively promotes Coach's lessons in her public role within the UCLA athletics department:

Coach Close gets it, or so I thought until I read her statement from last week about the prospect of participating in the WNIT:
It would be a great opportunity for us, especially with nine underclassmen and seven freshmen on the roster. These games would provide not only great game experience, but could be program forming. I think we are playing our best basketball of the season and I look forward to building on that momentum.
She's right, of course. Participating in the WNIT will be a good opportunity for the players to gain game experience. And since no UCLA women's basketball team has ever made it to the Final Four, she's correct in saying that taking part in the WNIT "could be program forming." As our coach, Cori Close has to act in the best interests of the program and her players. But as Coach Wooden said, "the coach is first of all a teacher," and that means that Coach Close also should act in the best interests of the student-athletes in her program.

"Basketball is not the ultimate. It is of small importance in comparison to the total life we live." - John Wooden

As a former student-athlete, I can assure you that every member of the women's basketball team wants to play in the WNIT. They want to extend their season, to keep competing, to be on the court with their teammates for as long as possible. But as we all have learned at some point in our lives, what we want today isn't necessarily what's best for us in the long run.

The important life lessons we learn aren't easy. My high school basketball coach used to tell us that we learn much more about ourselves in defeat than in victory. Life lessons are like that--they often come with disappointment or heartbreak--they come at a cost. Good teachers and coaches help us through these lessons. They understand that some things that we need to learn can't be extracted from a book or drawn from game experience.

"Let's face it, we're all imperfect and we're going to fall short on occasion. But we must learn from failure and that will enable us to avoid repeating our mistakes. Through adversity, we learn, grow stronger, and become better people." - John Wooden

This season our women's basketball team failed to accomplish what it should have accomplished given its abilities. Accepting a mini-reward in spite of the team's failure to achieve to its abilities teaches the wrong lesson to our student-athletes. In the future, I hope we will put the long term best interests of our student-athletes first, ahead of the financial interests of the athletic department and ahead of the strategic interests of our basketball program. At UCLA, we strive for excellence. Let's not be excited about accepting consolation prizes for falling short of our goals.