Has Caitlin Clark become a proxy for something more than basketball?

After a weekend of having the most overanalyzed flagrant foul in WNBA history force-fed down my social media timeline, I woke Monday to learn the feeding was far from over. Good Morning America and other Disney-owned shows devoted entire segments to Chennedy Carter’s hip check of Caitlin Clark, as if there had never been a flagrant foul in the league’s history.

Later Monday, the Chicago Tribune’s editorial board used its institutional voice to declare that the foul “would have been seen as an assault” had it happened outside of a sporting event.

Can we calm down and take a breath? It was a hip check; repeat … a hip check! Did Carter hit her from the side when Clark was looking away and waiting on an inbound pass? Yes. Did Clark embellish her fall to the ground? Appeared that way. Did it deserve a flagrant designation? Absolutely. But the pearl-clutching that has followed is as exhausting as it is nauseating.

Did The Tribune editorial board do a think piece when the Sky rookie Angel Reese was slammed to the court and Alyssa Thomas of the Connecticut Sun was ejected? Why not? But a hip check deserves commentary and is likened to a crime in a city that has more than enough problems with street violence? Make it make sense.

Had I not watched in real time, I would have thought that Carter took out Clark’s feet while Clark was in the air. Or that she hit her in the head from behind. Or that she sought to end Clark’s career in some predatory fashion. A hip check might have been the last thing I expected to evoke such over-the-top reactions.

Then again, we’re talking Caitlin Clark. Truth is, the focus on her has always been about more than basketball. It passed that mile marker a long time ago, some of which I wrote about earlier this year. Clark has become a proxy in discussions/arguments about race, culture, privilege and entitlement, with people who don’t even spell her name correctly telling us what other players feel about her or how she should be treated.


The Caitlin Clark Effect and the uncomfortable truth behind it

Discussions about whether she can live up to expectations often devolve into areas that have nothing to do with basketball, with people using her as a symbol to support whatever non-basketball narrative they believe in. Her name has been weaponized, in a sense.

On Monday morning, ESPN’s Pat McAfee did an entire segment on Clark and her importance to the WNBA. He pointed out that four of the league’s highest-rated games this year have featured Clark, and that her Indiana Fever are averaging more viewers on average than other teams with high-profile rookies. Then he chided the media:

“I would like the media people that continue to say, ‘This rookie class, this rookie class, this rookie class’ — nah, just call it for what it is,” he said. “There’s one White b—- for the Indiana team who is a superstar.”

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First things first, Clark is not a superstar in terms of performance as a professional. Not yet, at least. She is a national draw, no question, but her play has yet to catch up to her appeal — which is not to say it won’t, but it’s not there yet.

By referring to her as a “white b—-,” McAfee, like so many others, took the focus away from where it belongs, which is on the court. He did, however, apologize later in the afternoon.

“I shouldn’t have used ‘white b—-’ as a descriptor of Caitlin Clark, no matter the context … even if we’re talking about race being a reason for some of the stuff happening,” he posted on social media. “I have way too much respect for her and women to put that into the universe. My intentions when saying it were complimentary just like the entire segment but, a lot of folks are saying that it certainly wasn’t at all. That’s 100% on me and for that I apologize… I have sent an apology to Caitlin as well. Everything else I said… still alllllll facts. #Journalism #WNBAProgrum #SheIsTheOne”

Here’s the problem beyond his word choice: McAfee was wrong when he argued that Clark needs to be protected as a “cash cow” who is bringing eyeballs to the league. It’s a misguided belief that has been spewed by others, including LeBron James. As a former professional athlete, McAfee should know how foolish he sounds. Game respects game. There is no “take it easy” between the boundaries. You earn your keep.

Interestingly, the loudest voices calling for a double standard have come from men, which should be insulting to Clark and every other woman. It’s as if these men are saying that Clark isn’t strong enough to stand for herself. If she isn’t, she should move on like any other player in that situation would do. To treat her any other way is disrespectful to not only the true stars of the game but also the game of basketball itself.

I’ve watched nearly every Fever game, and while I don’t consider myself a basketball savant, or anything remotely close to that, some things are obvious. She has to get stronger. She’s thinking and reacting more than she is flowing organically. The Fever lack chemistry, perhaps from so little practice time together. And opponents are going hard at her. But why would that come as a surprise to anyone? When you’re the No. 1 pick in the draft who is being presented as the face of the league before ever playing a game, opponents are going to test you. It’s done in every sport, regardless of gender, regardless of race.

There have been glimpses of “dawg” in Clark, going back to college. From waving off a South Carolina shooter from 3-point range, as if to say the player wasn’t worth guarding, to doing the “you can’t see me” hand gesture. Even Saturday against the Chicago Sky, she elbowed (inadvertently?) Carter and said something to her on the possession before Carter hip-checked her.

Carter was wrong to respond the way that she did, a point coach Teresa Witherspoon acknowledged Monday morning in a statement released to the media. But things sometimes get out of hand during competition, regardless of gender, regardless of race. I was going to ask that we not make it more than that, but then I realized how foolish I’d sound.

(Photo: Evan Yu / NBAE via Getty Images)

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