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What the Caitlin Clark uproar is really about

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Indiana Fever rookie guard Caitlin Clark, right, and Washington Mystics forward Aaliyah Edwards in action this month (Photograph by Craig Hudson/The Washington Post )

When it comes to the extreme discourse about the WNBA lately, I wonder: can’t people just shut up and watch women dribble?

Ever since college basketball phenoms Caitlin Clark and Angel Reese entered the WNBA as rookies this year, mainstream interest in the league has skyrocketed. The game between Reese’s Chicago Sky and Clark’s Indiana Fever pulled in nearly three million viewers, the most for a WNBA game in 23 years.

All of this has been years in the making. Viewership for college women’s basketball has been increasing steadily over the past several years. Since the 1990s, there have been superstar players, dynastic women’s teams and million-dollar coaches. I remember as a young player looking up to Lisa Leslie, Sheryl Swoopes, Diana Taurasi, Sue Bird and watching the University of Tennessee Vols coached by the pioneer Pat Summitt.

All of this history is there to learn. And the present is also filled with spectacular young players such as Reese and fellow rookie Cameron Brink, as well as a host of amazing veterans such as Taurasi. But to listen to Clark’s extreme fans, she alone is the divine spirit elevating the sport. Enjoying the 22-year-old newcomer from the University of Iowa is not enough; her acolytes demand that all fans and the league itself must bow down and express gratitude for the interest in Clark, especially the interest from White and male audiences. Implicit is a threat that if Clark doesn’t get what they believe she — (cough) that audience — deserves, their interest could be taken away at any time.

Given that the WNBA is more than 60 per cent Black, it’s hard not to feel like the new fans are using Clark as a proxy for their own issues and attitudes about race, sexuality and gender.

Take the recent decision to leave Clark off the Team USA roster for the Paris Olympics this summer. The announced team is stacked with veteran talent, a female Dream Team, including Taurasi and her Phoenix Mercury team-mate Brittney Griner. Sabrina Ionescu and Breanna Stewart were also named. No rookies were named to the team. No players under the age of 26 were chosen.

But for two weeks, commentators have been squawking about how women’s basketball is missing the “greatest opportunity ever” to grow the sport. Writing for USA Today, columnist Christine Brennan described the Olympic decision as a snub, and charged that USA Basketball “dumped” Clark. Barstool Sports came out with a T-shirt with five images of Clark, each holding one of the five Olympic rings. “The Only Player That Matters”, the shirt declares.

NBA commissioner Adam Silver recently said of the choice: “I wouldn’t say I’m disappointed, but it would have been nice to see her on the floor.” He added that the basketball governing body “has a very specific mandate about fielding the best possible team, from a competitive standpoint, and I accept that they all did their jobs the way they were instructed to”.

In other words, the job of Team USA is to win. To her credit, Clark acknowledged gracefully that she has room to grow before she is fully the equal of the best veterans in the game. “Honestly, no disappointment,” she said after the roster was announced. “It just gives me something to work for; it’s a dream. Hopefully, one day I can be there. I think it’s just a little more motivation. You remember that. Hopefully, when four years comes back around, I can be there.”

Of course, grace is in short supply on sports radio and social media. Right-wingers have used Clark not only to race-bait but to stir homophobia. Professional blowhard Jason Whitlock called the WNBA a “travelling lesbian sex cult”. Whitlock continued: “It’s being very hostile towards Caitlin Clark because they’d like to break her, ruin her and destroy her so that they can install a lesbian or a Black woman, preferably a Black lesbian woman, as the face of this league. ... Have you ever heard one of them talk about what men have done for them?”

When asked about her name being weaponised to push racism and misogyny, Clark said, “I think everybody in our world deserves the same amount of respect. The women in our league deserve the same amount of respect. People should not be using my name to push those agendas. It’s disappointing. It’s not acceptable.”

It is a wonderful thing, and the nature of sport, to see amazing young talent rising to challenge, and eventually replace, the very stars they grew up idolising. Clark is rising into the great and growing tradition of women’s basketball, and doing so with grace and maturity. But she just arrived in the WNBA. Her fans need to follow her example and respect what the women before her have built.

But this is the crux of our cultural and political moment, right? The rise of the WNBA coincides with a broader wave of conservative male forces claiming to “save” America from various “threats” — critical race theory, DEI, migrants of colour and LGBTQ+ people.

Clark is not asking to be saved from anything. Her extremist fans should pipe down.

Karen Attiah is a columnist for The Washington Post and writes a weekly newsletter. She writes on international affairs, culture and social issues

Karen Attiah is a columnist for The Washington Post and writes a weekly newsletter. She writes on international affairs, culture and social issues. Previously, she reported from Curaçao, Ghana and Nigeria

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Published June 24, 2024 at 7:57 am (Updated June 24, 2024 at 7:22 am)

What the Caitlin Clark uproar is really about

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