The treatment of Caitlin Clark by her WNBA peers is fair, but her treatment by the media is not

Caitlin Clark has been at the center of the media universe since March, and nobody wants to talk about the only thing the Clark ever will.
Indiana Fever guard Caitlin Clark (22)
Indiana Fever guard Caitlin Clark (22) / Michelle Pemberton/IndyStar / USA TODAY

For better or for worse if the people will click, the content factory will churn, and when it comes to Caitlin Clark, we can’t stop clicking. That’s the very reason for this and countless other articles, TV segments, Instagram reels, and YouTube shorts. 

Whether it's her historic collegiate career, Diana Taurasi’s comments about her at the Final Four, her rivalry with LSU turned Chicago Sky star Angel Reese, or a recent flagrant foul/cheap shot by Reese’s teammate Chennedy Carter, everybody from Stephen A. Smith and Pat McAfee at ESPN to the pundits at CNN and Fox News have made their voice heard, everybody except Caitlin Clark. 

On Tuesday, amongst the dense fog of content that has descended upon sports media surrounding the newly crowned biggest sports star in the world, The Ringer’s Van Lathan and Ryen Russillo broached the topic, specifically regarding Stephen A. Smith’s First Take argument with Monica McNutt which boiled down to a disagreement over Smith’s responsibility to talk about the WNBA on his platform before the arrival of the league’s first-ever megastar. 

Lathan, formerly of TMZ, compared the country’s fascination with Clark to his personal fascination with controversial boxer Ryan Garcia saying, “I’m not watching him because he’s a very good boxer, I’m watching him because of the shit around Ryan Garcia, so I want to see what happens in the ring,” Lathan continued, “That’s another reason why Caitlin Clark is good for the WNBA because there’s shit around her.”

Lathan and Russillo’s points are well taken, the game is never enough to draw in casual fans, and it is those casual fans, not the diehards who will consume the competition regardless of the underlying storylines, who make or break the success of a league as a media enterprise. The disappointing part for Clark, a 22-year-old from Des Moines Iowa, who as ESPN’s Wright Thompson detailed in his profile of her senior season at Iowa, still had her mom do her laundry as recently as last fall, is that she didn’t create the “shit” as Lathan so accurately put it, the media did. 

Following Saturday’s 71-70 win over the Sky in which Clark finished with 11 points, eight rebounds, and six assists, she was asked about Carter’s hard foul that knocked her to the ground. Clark responded like she always does, with her play, “Just respond, come down, let your play do the talking, it is what it is. It’s a physical game, go make the free throw and then execute on offense.” 

Clark didn’t fire back, she didn’t fan the flames, she never does. Just since March Clark could have clapped back at Lynette Woodard, Taurasi, Reese, and now Carter who later, after denying to comment in the postgame press conference took to Instagram threads of all places to say, “beside three-point shooting what does she bring to the table man.” 

Caitlin Clark’s story has taken many forms in the past few months. It’s been a story of gender, of sexual identity, of race, of gatekeeping, and of straight-up hate, but it’s almost never been a story about the one thing that Clark seems to care about: basketball. 

Clark’s rise is groundbreaking in so many ways and there are countless societal factors that have made her the first true breakthrough star in women’s basketball and frankly women’s sports, but we’ve forgotten the primary reason why so many people started to care, and that’s because of her play. 

Being the No. 1 overall pick in any league’s draft is accompanied by the inevitable baggage of expectations. However, there are those few once-in-a-generation prospects like Lebron James, Peyton Manning, Bryce Harper, and now Caitlin Clark all were. James and Clark specifically arrived in leagues desperate for a star and the premature anointing of them as such placed a target squarely on their back as they entered professional basketball.

It’s the cycle of sports. The legends of another generation like Diana Taurasi are too competitive to abdicate the crown and the Chennedy Carters of the world see a chance to make a name for themselves if they can get the best of the budding star. Hell, how many people knew Carter’s name before Saturday (I certainly didn’t), and we still all remember Lance Stephenson blowing in Lebron’s ear. 

If all goes well for Clark, those conflicts will be footnotes along her journey to greatness, hurdles necessary to clear to achieve sports immortality. Sure, Clark’s notoriety brought attention to the shortcomings of the fledgling league and has already solved quite a few like chartered flights. Still, that doesn’t mean those competing against Clark owe her a smooth onboarding process into the WNBA and it doesn’t mean they’re jealous of her either. 

Many in the media, myself included, are new to discussing women’s sports and it seems more than a few have forgotten that these women are athletes not characters in a new hit TV show. While it may be best for the “W” to have Clark take the Indiana Fever to the championship in her rookie year, it’s not better for Taurasi’s Phoenix Mercury, Carter and Reeses’s Chicago Sky, Sabrina Ionescu’s New York Liberty, or any of the other teams in the league that certainly shouldn’t have Clark’s best interest in mind. 

The players of the WNBA are treating Clark just about how every athlete with her type of pedigree, and there are very few, has been treated in the history of sports. The media coverage, on the other hand, is a new undiscovered frontier, one that, much more than her peers in the WNBA, has a chance to break her. 

Yet, there’s almost no way to escape the cycle, Clark’s mere existence gets engagement so writers like me are forced to search for a new angle on the most saturated topic in sports, and all secretly hoping, just like Chennedy Carter, to catch a ride on Clark’s shooting star. Sadly, the responsibility may fall to the 22-year-old from Des Moines to overcome the age-old tradition of tearing down successful women. Unceasing toxic conversations around successful women certainly aren’t new to society, they’re just new to sports. As the select few who have kept the circling piranhas at bay, like Taylor Swift, have shown, the best chance is to control the narrative yourself. 

Clark’s plan has always been to let her play do the talking, and I fear that for a content-starved media machine feeding on its newest cash cow, that won’t be enough. Lathan’s right, the “shit” around Caitlin Clark has elevated the WNBA to a new level, but it's never been her “shit” it's ours, and she’s left to shoulder all that additional weight as she tries to fulfill a lifelong dream.

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