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Opinion | Caitlin Clark’s fans must respect the WNBA
Opinion | Caitlin Clark’s fans must respect the WNBA

Given all the extreme debate about the WNBA lately, I wonder: Can’t people just shut up and watch the women dribble?

Since college basketball phenoms Caitlin Clark and Angel Reese entered the WNBA as rookies this year, overall interest in the league has skyrocketed. The game between Reese’s Chicago Sky and Clark’s Indiana Fever drew nearly 3 million viewers, the highest viewership for a WNBA game in 23 years.

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

All of history is there to learn from. And the present is also full of spectacular young players like Reese and fellow rookie Cameron Brink, as well as a number of amazing veterans like Taurasi. But if you listen to Clark’s extreme fans, her alone is the divine spirit that elevates the sport. Enjoying the 22-year-old freshman from the University of Iowa is not enough; her supporters demand that all fans and the league itself must bow and express gratitude for the interest in Clark, especially the interest of white and male audiences. Implicit in this is a threat that if Clark doesn’t get what they think she should, she — (cough) this audience – earned, their interest could be withdrawn at any time.

Given that the WNBA is over 60 percent black, it’s hard to escape the feeling that new fans are using Clark as a proxy for their own issues and views on race, sexuality and gender.

Take, for example, the recent decision to leave Clark off the U.S. team’s roster for the Paris Olympics this summer. The announced team is loaded with veteran talent, a female dream team that includes Taurasi and her teammate on the Phoenix Mercury, 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 selected.

But for the past two weeks, commentators have been clamoring that women’s basketball is missing the “greatest opportunity ever” to develop the sport. In an article for USA Today, columnist Christine Brennan called the decision to hold the Olympics a snub and accused USA Basketball of “dumping” Clark. Barstool Sports released a T-shirt with five pictures of Clark, each holding one of the five Olympic rings. “The only player who matters,” the T-shirt reads.

NBA Commissioner Adam Silver recently commented on the choice: “I wouldn’t say I’m disappointed, but it would have been nice to see them on the court.” He added that basketball’s governing body “has a very specific mandate to field the best possible team from a competitive perspective, and I accept that they have done all of their jobs as they were instructed.”

In other words, Team USA’s job is to win. To Clark’s credit, she gracefully admitted she still has room to improve before she’s fully on par with 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 I can be there one day. I think it’s just a little bit more motivation. It’s important to remember that. Hopefully I can be there again when it’s four years again.”

Of course, mercy is in short supply on sports radio and social media. Right-wingers have used Clark not only for racist diatribes but also to stoke homophobia. Professional pompous Jason Whitlock called the WNBA a “traveling lesbian sex cult.” Whitlock continued, “They are very hostile toward Caitlin Clark because they would like to break her, ruin her and destroy her so they can put a lesbian or a black woman, preferably a black lesbian, as the figurehead of this league. … Have you ever heard any of them talk about what men have done for them?”

When asked if her name was being used as a weapon to promote racism and misogyny, Clark said, “I think everyone in our world deserves equal respect. The women in our league deserve equal respect. People should not use my name to push those agendas. That’s disappointing. That’s not acceptable.”

It’s wonderful, and the nature of the sport, to see young talent challenge and eventually replace the stars they idolized as children. Clark is stepping into the great and growing tradition of women’s basketball and doing so with grace and maturity. But she’s only just arrived in the WNBA. Her fans need to follow her example and respect what the women before her have built.

But that’s the crux of our cultural and political moment, isn’t it? 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, immigrants of color, and LGBTQ+ people. Clark isn’t asking to be saved from anything. Her extremist fans should shut up.

“Let’s just stop the hysteria,” said Karen Attiah. (Video: Shih-Wei Chou/The Washington Post)

By Everly