Discussing the WNBA and race takes nuance and knowledge, something far too many narrators lack

Indiana Fever’s Caitlin Clark was on the receiving end of a flagrant foul four days ago. The fallout has highlighted some glaring issues with todays media.

With the help of Clark, women’s sports have shattered the metaphoric glass ceiling. The new found discourse proves media and fans alike are not nuanced enough to handle mature conversations about the WNBA, the rise of Clark, and the role race undoubtedly plays in all of it.

For those who watched, covered, or enjoyed WNBA basketball before Clark arrived, this was already a great league, with great storylines and great basketball. Those people will wonder why it took everyone else so long to see. More specifically, they want to know why it was Clark who brought these eyeballs, and not players like Diana Taurasi, Sue Bird, Candace Parker, Maya Moore or A’ja Wilson.

Fair or not to the aforementioned legends, Clark has been the driving force of this new wave of support for the WNBA. But the truth is  the focus on her has always been about more than basketball.

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.

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.”

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.

“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.

McAfee wasn’t alone among ESPN stars coming up short when discussing the WNBA on Monday. Preceding McAfee on “First Take,” Stephen A. Smith got into a back-and-forth with the basketball analyst Monica McNutt.

Smith, ESPN’s $12 million per year man, was debating McNutt about Clark when Smith said, “Who talks about the WNBA? Who talks about women’s sports more than ‘First Take?””

McNutt sounded as if she was trying to be as respectful as possible to Smith, but she could not help but throw down a dunk over him.

“Stephen A., respectfully, with your platform you could’ve been doing this three years ago if you wanted to,” McNutt said.

Smith looked as if he had been hit with a left hook, forced to say, “Wow.”

For ESPN, the discussions about Clark gave the network a bridge topic from Smith’s highly rated “First Take” to McAfee’s program. To say they fumbled the conversation is an understatement.

And McNutt was right about the history. Few people were talking as substantially about the WNBA on live television until the anticipation of Clark’s arrival.

Every sport wants to be talked about by the Smiths and McAfees of the world on ESPN. It’s the center of daily sports, and the WNBA is now a regular topic in a way it hasn’t been in the past, even on the network that has more invested in women’s sports on television than anyone else.

But when flooded with essentially a whole new sport in a new found spotlight, unfortuanelty pundits are not knowledgeable enough to hold mature and respectable conversations without outlandish fallout.

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.

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.

Sports media is just a sample size of the overall population. The nuance and knowledge it takes to discuss this level of intense topics is something majority of the population lacks.

I hope this is simply a day of growing pains for the national media and fans on how we talk about the WNBA as it becomes more of a national discussion. Every metric shows massive, massive interest in all things Clark and WNBA right now. That’s not going away.

I want to leave you with what I deemed one of the best conversations regarding the topic between Bob Costas and Cari Champion. 


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