Let Caitlin Clark Live - 6 minutes read

Caitlin Clark’s arrival in the WNBA has set off a firestorm of chatter, discourse, and debate the likes of which we’ve never really seen in sports. The only 21st century precedent I can think of is Tebowmania, about a dozen years ago, when former Heisman Trophy-winning quarterback Tim Tebow enjoyed some success in the NFL, with the Denver Broncos. Tebow’s open embrace of his Christian faith sparked a conversation about the appropriateness of religious zeal in the public square, in this case the football field. The media covered Tebow 24-7. But then he went away, his throwing motion never quite pro-ready. 

Clark’s not going anywhere—she’s an all-time athletic talent, the leading scorer in NCAA Division 1 history. And even the Tebow comparison is imperfect. Tebow actually did something to warrant discussion about an off-field issue like religion: he wore his faith on his sleeve. Clark is igniting a firestorm around issues of race, gender, and the growth of women’s sports, by doing what she’s always done: playing basketball, with passion. 

We saw this phenomenon again going into this weekend, when word came down that Clark was left off the Team USA roster for the upcoming Paris Olympics. Media commentators of all stripes exploded with outrage. A headline on Outkick, the right-leaning sports outlet, called Clark’s Olympic exclusion an “All-Time WTF decision.” Meanwhile USA Today columnist Christine Brennan wrote on X that “having covered the Olympics for 40 years (gulp), I’ve seen some bad team and athlete selection decisions. This is the worst.” Wrote Bill Plaschke in the Los Angeles Times: “shame on them,” referring to USA Basketball officials.

“This is about what I will personally label 'The Idiocy of Team USA Women's Basketball,’” ESPN’s Stephen A. Smith said on the morning debate show, First Take, on Monday. “How dare you make this decision. It's stupid."

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All this outrage seems odd. Sure, the core argument for Clark’s inclusion makes sense: Clark’s impact on WNBA attendance and ratings are real and well-documented. It would have been good business for USA Basketball to give her a spot. She’d keep the positive momentum for women’s basketball strong through the summer. Plus, she can more than handle her own on the court. Team USA can always use sharpshooters.

If USA Basketball put Clark on the team, and was transparent about the business benefits, fine. But since when do sports-media commentators root for ratings above all else? Since when is capitalism the core concern? What about fairness, a supposedly core tenant of sports? 

Every player on the 12-person Team USA roster deserves her spot. Who would you swap out for Clark? Kelsey Plum, who won gold in 3x3 hoops in Tokyo, and has since won two straight titles with the Las Vegas Aces? Her promotion to the 5x5 team was on the merits. The three first-time Olympians, Alyssa Thomas, Sabrina Ionescu, and Kahleah Copper, are all accomplished WNBA pros who played on the U.S. team that won the World Cup in Australia in 2022. Their loyalty to the program paid off with an Olympic invite. What’s wrong with that? The youngest players on the team are 26. Clark is 22. Not a single rookie made the squad.

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Clark recently tied the WNBA rookie record for most threes in a game and she became the fastest player to get to at least 200 points and 50 assists in the WNBA history, but these are difficult decisions. Players with more sterling pro resumes than Clark have been snubbed. Candace Parker was a two-time WNBA MVP when she was left off the Rio Olympic roster. Going into Tokyo, Nneka Ogwumike was a WNBA MVP who also earned MVP honors in the Olympic qualifying tournament for those games. She watched Team USA win gold from home.

Yes, other stars right out of college, like Diana Taurasi in 2004 and Breanna Stewart in 2016, joined Olympic teams right away. But the WNBA has benefited from a deeper talent pool these past few years; that talent drove viewership and engagement to new highs even before Clark entered the league. It’s a testament to the WNBA that the Americans will be the overwhelming favorite without Clark. 

And plenty of people will be invested in Team USA in Paris. The Japan-USA women’s hoops final in Tokyo averaged 7.8 million viewers, according to Sports Media Watch, the largest audience for any women’s basketball game in at least five years. For context: Clark’s WNBA debut drew 2.1 million, making it the league’s most- viewed game since 2001. An impressive Olympics showing will continue to draw eyeballs to the game, and Clark will receive a well-deserved break before continuing to sell out arenas post-Paris. She’s also on track to make the team in L.A., in 2028. Women’s basketball will be more than fine.

All overheated Caitlin Clark discourse can use a time-out. Since her arrival, many prominent pundits and athletes have had less-than-fine moments in her sphere. Indianapolis Star columnist Gregg Doyel had a cringey exchange with Clark at her debut Fever press conference, earning him a suspension. Charles Barkley called women in the WNBA “petty” due to some of the resistance the rookie has faced in the WNBA, conveniently forgetting that jealousy of male superstars is also common: according to NBA lore, during his rookie year, some veterans decided not to pass the ball to Michael Jordan in the All-Star Game. Pat McAfee called Clark a “white bitch” on his show last week. Good grief.

On the court, the understandable desire to compete and put a rookie like Clark in her place has at times gone too far. Chicago Sky guard Chennedy Carter hip-checked Clark to the ground during a game; the flagrant foul was a cheap shot. Sky rookie Angel Reese cheered the hit from the sidelines: not cool. But maybe Black players like Reese and two-time WNBA champion A’ja Wilson wouldn’t have to point out the obvious—that players like them are also driving interest, or that the WNBA has long had phenomenal players—if commentators weren’t so focused on Clark, to the exclusion of others.

Clark, for her part, seems to understand that so much of the frenzy surrounding her is out of her control and is just trying to play the game she was hired to play. “I think it just gives you something to work for,” Clark said in reaction to her so-called Olympic snub. “I know it's the most competitive team in the world, and I know it could have gone either way of me being on the team or me not being on the team. I'm excited for them. Going to be rooting them on to win gold.”

That should say it all. Let’s let the storm settle. Let Clark focus on her game. Good things will follow.

Source: Time

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