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  • Cooper Burke

The WNBA’s Caitlin Clark Problem

Indiana Fever guard Caitlin Clark came into the league with fanfare from both talking heads and fans, and it is easy to see why. Clark and the new rookie class’s popularity turned many eyeballs towards the league. It immediately created a windfall for the players, drove up ticket prices, and made it possible for the teams to fly on private jets.

The problem lies in the players’ reaction to Clark’s star power. They seem to be outwardly antagonistic to her, face guarding her all the way up the court even without the ball. The players foul Clark almost any chance they get, and these are not ordinary shooting fouls: many of them border on flagrant.

Recently, former top-five pick Chennedy Carter shoved Clark to the ground and started to jaw at her, while Angel Reese jumped up off the bench and appeared to celebrate the cheap shot. Before reporters asked Carter about anything, she said “I ain’t answering no Caitlin Clark questions”. She then said that Clark does nothing but “shoot threes”.

Carter was suspended by the Atlanta Dream for wanting to fight another player who tried to improve her attitude during the game. They traded her to the Sparks, where they benched her for conduct issues and she missed four games.

They cut her from the team the next year, and she spent the year playing in Turkey. Carter’s temper forced her out of the league, and it may happen again. Her comment towards someone who has only played a few games in the league and has already proven to make more of an impact than Carter ever did.

Carter and the rest of the league’s reaction smacks of jealousy, something that women’s sports must rectify. Although Clark has only been in the league for a few weeks, she and her counterparts like Reese and Cameron Brink turned eyes towards the sport in a way many did not expect. However, Clark has shouldered the load.

She has consistently drawn the most eyes, with Fever ticket prices remaining significantly higher than any other team on the market. In addition, TV viewership numbers are up across the league, but interest peaks in games Clark plays. Interest in Reese is also higher than most of the league, but not at the same level as Clark.

Her rival Angel Reese’s most recent performance was abysmal as she went 3-12 from the field and 3-11 from inside the arc. She was also ejected, although that appeared to be due to a misunderstanding with a referee. It came after she spoke on the recent buzz the league generated.

“I’ll look back in 20 years and be like the reason why we're watching women's basketball is not just because of one person,” Reese said. “It's because of me, too. I want y'all to realize that."

Although that may be true, Reese’s numbers do not show it. As a primary paint player, Reese shoots 33% from the field in her young career.

The WNBA’s self-cannibalization stands to destroy the league. An apt comparison to this is the crab-bucket phenomenon, which many experienced if they grew up in the South or near the shores of the Mid-Atlantic. When placed in a bucket for harvest, crabs will try and claw their way out of the bucket. However, if one looks like they are going to escape the bucket, the other crabs pull it back into the bucket to make sure none of them survive.

With Clark and others, the WNBA receives the most attention it has in its near-thirty-year history, yet players seem to be intent on destroying what momentum they have by taking out Clark. She has been knocked off her feet multiple times by hard fouls and yet her teammates refused to back her up. It seems that the WNBA’s athletes take Clark’s success in college, and to this point, the league, personally. For the league, this is one of the worst possible points of action. It indicates that they are stubborn and refuse to accept that the league is moving in a more popular direction that is accessible to millions of fans.

Some talking heads like Monica McNutt even blame the public for only now being interested in the product due to Clark’s race, but this is disingenuous. Several new stars such as A’ja Wilson have drawn attention and eyes from many casual viewers. While it is true that the media gravitates towards Clark, this is an issue that plagues all sports. When there are great storylines in college about the NCAA baseball champs or the latest gymnastics powerhouses, outlets only want to cover teams like the Lakers, Cowboys and Dodgers.

This may indicate that Clark has locker room issues, but it does not excuse how the league has treated the biggest thing to come through their doors in a long time. When Larry Bird came into the NBA, he was also the target of vitriol. However, his teammates like Robert Parrish jumped to his defense early and often, unlike how the Fever is treating Clark.

Imagine a world where people threw behind Barry Bonds every time he stepped to the plate because they did not like him for being a rising star. The Giants would surely come to Bonds’ defense in some sort of benches-clearing incident. This is not to say that the Fever need to clear the benches every time Clark gets fouled, but they need to back her up like they would any other teammate would in any sport.

Obviously, the league should treat Clark like every other player: an important cog in the machine of women’s basketball, and aim to elevate her status along with the league’s, as her presence draws eyes to the organization.  Players attacking Clark for merely existing puts a stain on the league, and more importantly turns off potential viewers.

Like it or not, most new viewers are here to see players like Clark, Reese or Brink. There is a reason that the WNBA struggled before this year’s rookie class came along. It is up to the rest of the league to understand that their ticket to relevancy is through the new blood, and they have to stop trying to single them out and tear them down. When the league accepts them with open arms, the sport becomes much better. 

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