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Caitlin Clark is a Rorschach test

Jun 24, 2024, 11:37 IST
Noah K. Murray/AP, Michael Conroy/AP, Jose A. Bernat Bacete/Getty, Tyler Le/BI
Caitlin Clark, a 22-year-old Iowa graduate, is having an unusual start to professional life.

Her star rose fast in college. She became the leading basketball scorer in NCAA history — for men and women — and smashed all kinds of other records, drawing legions of new fans and also historic partnership deals. Since being drafted into the WNBA in April as the No. 1 overall pick, Clark is having an impressive, albeit inconsistent, rookie campaign. She has struggled at times with the increased physicality at this level, which is extremely normal.

But nothing that Clark does — or that is done to Clark — is treated as normal.

On Sunday, Clark was flagrant-fouled by the Chicago Sky's Angel Reese in the third quarter, and it made headline news on CNN, Fox News, ESPN, Bleacher Report, and even Deadline, the Hollywood news site.

That was just the latest bulletin in a months-long news cycle trailing everything Clark does. ESPN's Stephen A. Smith said WNBA players should go easier on Clark in games if they want to keep up record viewership: "Protect the golden goose." When Clark was not picked for the Olympic team in June — likely because of Team USA's depth at the guard position and Clark's lack of international experience — Republican governor Nikki Haley, a Republican former governor of South Carolina, tweeted in outrage: "I think the Olympic selection committee should be asked do we want the best team to represent our country or not?" After Clark was hard-fouled in a recent game, a GOP congressman from Indiana wrote an open letter to WNBA commissioner Cathy Engelbert, asking her to do something about "excessive" physical play. He said Clark's "exceptionalism" was being met with "resentment and repeated attacks from fellow players."


Caitlin Clark just signed a deal with Wilson, the basketball manufacturer — a first for any athlete since Michael JordanMichael Hickey/Getty Images
All this attention positions Clark as the de facto face of the WNBA, which is predominantly Black with a strong and vocal LGBTQ population. Clark, herself, largely stays out of it. She doesn't comment on the uproar, except to say she's focused on playing basketball. And yet, her name has become a kerosene canister to inflame a thinly-veiled debate about race, gender, and representation in America.

These days, watching Caitlin Clark play basketball has become a Rorschach test for a deeply divided country.

How Caitlin Clark become the center of a culture war

Being a female athlete is inherently an act of political defiance. In the US, it took a 1972 law about gender equality in education, Title IX, to inadvertently drag public institutions kicking and screaming into providing resources for women's sport, and many remain noncompliant today. Because of this, activism and women's sports often go hand-in-hand, with champions fighting not just for medals, but for equal pay, racial and LGBTQ equality, and maternal rights. Four years ago, WNBA players actually helped flip a Senate seat in Georgia.

In recent years, we've seen some outspoken female athletes used as props to push political agendas, most notably Megan Rapinoe, the women's soccer player who became a target for her outspoken hatred of Donald Trump, and Brittney Griner, the WNBA player who was wrongfully imprisoned in Russia for most of 2022.

Clark is different. She, herself, does not talk politics. She shoots threes and dishes dimes. She attends her contractual media interviews, and fields offers from the world's biggest shoe brands who have been trying to partner with her since she was at school.

But it's getting tougher for Clark (and the rest of the WNBA) to focus on work alone.

Fouls that wouldn't even be a footnote in NBA coverage — fouls that other women across the WNBA commit and take every game — are suddenly talking points. Male sports commentators who have never given the WNBA airtime are dedicating multiple segments to Clark's Black opponents, calling them jealous bullies who are out to hurt her. Matt Leinart, a former football player-turned-media personality, said on X that the WNBA should suspend Reese for an unintentional foul because it was "bad for the game." ESPN's Pat McAfee, a football pundit, compared Clark to Eminem in an inflammatory rant, saying that people don't want to give her credit because she's white.

Last week, security had to intervene whenChennedy Carter, a Chicago Sky player, was confronted by a man outside a hotel in Washington, DC. The man was demanding to know if Carter had reached out to Clark after hard-fouling her in a recent game — a play that, while excessive, was overdramatized by a GOP congressman to issue a formal complaint to the WNBA. Fellow WNBA players started making statements, calling for the firestorm to stop. Many Black players, including Clark's own teammates, spoke up about experiencing excessive racist abuse on social media in recent weeks.

When asked about her name being used "as a weapon in the culture wars dividing the country," Clark initially side-stepped the question. "I don't see it. That's not where my focus is," she said. "My focus is here and on basketball. That's where it needs to be, that's where it has been, and I'm just trying to get better on a daily basis."

Some WNBA fans and players took issue with that response. "Silence is a luxury," Connecticut Sun forward Dijonai Carrington wrote on X. Carrington vocalized a brewing frustration about one (white, straight) rookie being awarded more mainstream credit, plaudits, and sympathy than we've ever really seen in the WNBA's existence.

The WNBA is stacked with phenomenally talented Black players, including Angel Reese (center left).Emilee Chinn/Getty Images
Black women built, sustained, at times even saved the WNBA during its first 28 years. Their stories often go untold: a study found that in 2020, four of the five most talked about WNBA players in the media were white, despite 80% of the postseason awards being won by Black players.

And their compensation falls short, too. Media fanfare propelled Clarkinto a historic $28 million deal with Nike, which reportedly came with a signature shoe— a huge moment for women's basketball, but one that stoked controversy because the only other two WNBA players with signature shoes, Sabrina Ionescu and Breanna Stewart, are also white. (Two weeks later, Nike said A'ja Wilson, a Black two-time MVP who has been with Nike since she was the top draft pick in 2018, will have a signature shoe in 2025.)

The hope that this new era of WNBA fandom could be everything for everyone is turning into exasperation.

This all says more about commentators than it does about Clark

Caitlin Clark is in a unique position, thrust into a role of advocate and spokesperson for the WNBA.Icon Sportswire/Getty Images
The chaotic coverage of Clark doesn't tell us much about her or the league. It does underscore that the sports media ecosystem is wholly unprepared for the rise of women's basketball.

Even before Clark, the price of the WNBA's media rights deal was expected to double in 2025, bringing a game-changing influx of cash to the table — money that can turn salaries from livable to luxurious, and investments into profit.

But this moment, which has been building for decades, is being undercut by commentators and brands who are fixated on Clark. While there's no doubt her exceptional skill is a big reason why ratings nearly tripled during the first month of the season, it doesn't do Clark or the WNBA any favors to paint her as a precious legend in a league of her own who needs to be protected.

All these projections — from Clark's supporters and detractors — infantilize every player on the court. She is strong, and played the best game of her WNBA career so far on Sunday. She's working hard to diversify her game, to adjust to the next level, on and off the court. In one of her most recent interviews, Clark got more direct than ever. "Everybody in our world deserves the same amount of respect," Clark told James Boyd of The Athletic. "The women in our league deserve the same amount of respect, so people should not be using my name to push those agendas."

She's growing. It's time for the rest of us to do the same.

Correction: June 20, 2024 — This story was updated to clarify that Nikki Haley is a former governor of South Carolina, not the current one.
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