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Caitlan Clark’s Treatment in WNBA

Caitlin Clark of the Indiana Fever
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By: Jason Gay – wsj.com – June 3, 2024

A cheap shot, indefensible. Not that big of a deal. She could have been hurt. She may have had it coming. The league can’t let it slide. The league can’t coddle one player. She’s the most important star in the sport. She’s a known trash talker. This is going to alienate viewers. This has fans talking. That wasn’t a basketball move. Have you ever watched the Bad Boy Detroit Pistons?

It’s the Knockdown Heard Around Women’s Basketball, and beyond. The takes are flying—interpretations through a sports prism, a social prism, a gender prism, a racial prism. Indiana Fever coach Christie Sides is furious that Clark’s getting knocked about. The WNBA retroactively upgraded Carter’s foul to a flagrant 1 status. Even Draymond Green’s jumping on, suggesting the Fever need an enforcer—their own Draymond, if you will.

It’s the latest thump in a tumultuous rookie season for the 22-year-old ex-college basketball sensation drafted first out of Iowa in mid-April.

Hailed as a change agent in the WNBA before she launched her first 3-pointer, bequeathed a signature Nike shoe without a signature pro performance, Clark has struggled on a weak team against a veteran-stuffed league that appears eager to give the rookie a rude reality check.

On Sunday night Clark had her lowest-scoring game as a pro, registering only three points as the 2-9 Fever were trampled by the New York Liberty 104-68.

Three points! We’re not in Iowa anymore.

Caitlin Clark and the Indiana Fever are 2-9 this season. Photo: Getty Images

With the opinion machine burning into hyperbolic overdrive, I’d like to fly the spaceship down to planet earth and offer a few quick thoughts:

Carter’s hit on Clark was indeed a cheap shot, and the refs blew it. I don’t care if the two players were engaged in some previous kerfuffling—burying a shoulder into a player looking the other way is unacceptable at any level, from pre-K to the NBA. I’m not sure what the officials were thinking, ruling it a modest away-from-the-play foul, and obviously the league felt they botched it, hence its upgrade to flagrant. Anyone trying to justify it as normal physical basketball back-and-forth is being willfully absurd.

This drama is a crummy look for the WNBA. I’ve seen the arguments that this kind of dust-up can build a rivalry, and rivalries are good for sports, but there’s a difference between hard-nosed competitiveness and decking someone with purpose. Clark is a gateway vehicle for new fans—witness the Fever sellouts at home and on the road—and seeing their Hawkeye heroine crumpled on the ground isn’t what they’re turning up to watch. I guess there’s potential for tantalizing future showdowns with Chicago—and for goosing Clark’s long rivalry with LSU star turned Sky rookie Angel Reese, who appeared to indecorously celebrate Carter’s body check—but the league should be beyond wanting that sort of cheap heat.

Clark is a change agent, it’s undeniable. Look at her impact on the game already—the record ratings for Iowa’s run to the Final Four, where the women’s weekend crushed the men’s, and even the 300% uptick for Clark’s selection on WNBA draft night. Clark is in more commercials than Pat Mahomes, she arrives at a breakthrough moment of rising investment in women’s sports (the WNBA just started allowing teams to take charter flights), and she’s pushing more games into prime-time TV, where every player gets to be seen, not just her. If the numbers surge, the whole league stands to benefit financially. To be clear: The women’s game owes a great deal to players before Clark, many of them overlooked and underappreciated. But Clark is the straw stirring the drink now, and if it works, everyone can win.

Competitiveness is hard to tamp down. That’s probably the most compelling part of this whole discussion. I don’t think WNBA players are at a loss about Clark’s impact—they see her following, the attention she’s already delivered. And yet they’re also Grade-A competitors, and sports (all sports) are full of veteran professionals who see it as their sworn duty to make life as miserable as possible for any highly-touted rookie. (Clark’s not the only one here—Reese took a rough clothesline in May.) Even players who don’t have anything extra for Clark are high-level talents, far better than what Clark faced in school. Veteran WNBA players flagged this before Clark was drafted—remember Diana Taurasi declaring that “reality is coming” when Clark joined the league? “There is going to be a transition period when you’re going to have to give yourself some grace as a rookie.” Fact check: totally true! You could make a case that the most self-interested thing WNBA players could do is to let Caitlin Clark score 40 points a game…but they’re never going to do it, because they’re competitors first.

Clark’s struggle is extremely normal. Almost every celebrated newbie goes through harsh trials early in a professional career, often because they’re situated on a lousy team. Look at the French NBA phenom Victor Wembanyama, who looked wobbly on a threadbare San Antonio club until brilliantly elevating his game as the season progressed. Hall of Famer Dirk Nowitzki averaged just over eight points in his rookie year. Teenaged Kobe Bryant: 7.6. Clark’s Fever stats (16.9 points, 5.4 rebounds, 6.5 assists) may pale to her cartoonish Iowa numbers, but they’re hardly terrible, and they’re likely to improve as she and her team find their way. Clark is the fastest WNBA rookie to ever record 150 points, 50 assists, and 50 rebounds, and lost in Saturday’s drama: the Fever won.

I have no idea what this means for the Olympics. If you’re looking at it from a visibility standpoint, putting Clark on Team USA in Paris is an absolute no-brainer: She would be the biggest name on the team, and someone who would bring in a new audience. From a basketball standpoint, however, she faces a ton of seasoned competition, and Clark surely doesn’t want to make the team for any reasons other than her play. There’s also this: If she makes it, there will be pressure to give her minutes—that new audience for Olympic basketball doesn’t want to see Clark on the Paris pine.

She’s going to get better. Being a rookie is hard. It’s probably going to get harder. But we’ve seen this story before. Caitlin Clark is too good.

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Source: Caitlin Clark Gets Knocked Down. She’s Going to Get Back Up. – WSJ