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Thursday, June 20, 2024

The messy discourse around Caitlin Clark, Chennedy Carter, and the WNBA, explained

This season, the WNBA has been the subject of immense attention and debate driven by the excitement around its rookie class, which includes stars like Caitlin Clark and Angel Reese.

In the last week, in particular, a flagrant foul by Chicago Sky player Chennedy Carter on Clark has prompted an extended round of discourse. Everyone from pundits posing questions about whether players are being too tough on Clark to a federal lawmaker claiming Clark was attacked has felt they needed to weigh in. (Clark, for her part, has largely stayed above the fray.) And in the wake of the foul, Carter, as well as her team, have been the subject of harassment

The foul, and the scrutiny of it, encapsulates how certain people are superimposing their own priors — and ignorance — onto the league. 

As the spotlight on this year’s star-studded freshman WNBA class has grown, male pundits who do not have a history of covering women’s basketball have been offering less than incisive commentary that leans on misogynistic and racist tropes.

The WNBA and the media are also grappling with ongoing issues surrounding race. Because of her record-breaking successes in college, Clark — who is white — has been touted by some as the new face of the league, a framing that’s raised questions of equity given how many WNBA stars are women of color who haven’t gotten the same due. A growing narrative about Clark needing protection from other players echoes concerning tropes of white women as victims and Black women as aggressors, too.

“Media leaders have not been investing in coverage of women’s sport across levels, which not only leads to a shortage of highly visible journalists … who are experts in women’s sport, but also a complete lack of knowledge from this new and emerging fanbase,” says Lindsey Darvin, a sports management professor at Syracuse University. “All of this lends itself to really biased interpretations of how the players are performing and behaving and the comfortable thing to do is … [align] player behavior and playing style along race and gender stereotypes.”

The foul and the follow-up, briefly explained 

While media missteps and questions about what Clark’s identity means have been ongoing this season, Carter’s foul at a June 1 game between the Chicago Sky and the Indiana Fever turned the dial up even more. 

At that game, Carter, who is Black, scored a basket and then shoulder-checked Clark during the third quarter of the game, knocking her to the floor. Initially, Carter’s action was dubbed a common foul, and was later upgraded by the league to a more serious, flagrant one. 

Following the foul, Clark noted in an interview that it took her by surprise and that it was “not a basketball play.” Sky Coach Teresa Weatherspoon went on to say that the foul was “not appropriate,” and that she had discussed it with Carter. Carter originally declined to comment on the move at a press conference after the game, and later stated that she didn’t have “regrets” and that she was going to “compete and play 100 percent hard — no matter who it is or who we’re playing.” Carter also posted a seemingly negative comment about Clark, writing in a Threads reply: “Beside three point shooting what does she bring to the table man.”

As Yahoo! Sports’s WNBA writer Cassandra Negley explained, it was apparent the foul “wasn’t a basketball play, nor was it necessary,” and “it’s also true that type of competitive physicality happens in basketball, and especially in the WNBA, quite a bit.” Prior to that Fever-Sky game, there had been three flagrant fouls that were upgraded following in-game reviews this season, Negley writes. One of those was by the Connecticut Sun’s Alyssa Thomas, who choke-slammed Reese in a May game, a moment that hasn’t received the same amount of attention as the Clark one.

In the days since it took place, however, there’s been a wide range of responses to the foul, which has been used to fuel a larger narrative about the broader WNBA being “out to get Caitlin Clark,” as one WNBA fan account put it on X. Some sports observers have questioned whether Clark needs to be shielded from other players, a point that, intentionally or not, also taps into racist tropes. US Rep. Jim Banks (R-IN) has also described it as an “excessive attack,” while the Chicago Tribune said it would be classified as an “assault” off the court, a comment for which it’s received widespread flack.

Others, including The View host Whoopi Goldberg have told people to “get over [themselves]” because they “are athletes.” And outside a hotel in Washington, DC, Sky players were accosted by a man in an incident that required security to de-escalate it, prompting Reese to post that the reaction “really is outta control” and that it needed to stop. 

The WNBA discourse taps into long-standing tropes 

The reactions to the Carter-Clark foul are part of a larger conversation that’s been brewing about the WNBA regarding race. 

While many sports observers have stressed that Clark’s talent is undeniable and a huge boon for the WNBA, there’s also been some frustration that a white woman has now become the biggest face of a primarily Black league. Some have worried that the achievements of other immensely talented players who have helped build the league to what it is today are not being celebrated, too. 

“I think it’s a huge thing. I think a lot of people may say it’s not about Black and white, but to me, it is,” Las Vegas Aces star A’ja Wilson previously told the Associated Press when asked about how race factored into Clark’s popularity. “It really is because you can be top notch at what you are as a Black woman, but yet maybe that’s something that people don’t want to see.”

Since Clark has entered the league, commentators have also raised questions about if other players are envious of her. Thanks to her closely watched college career, she entered the league with endorsements and fanfare few of her colleagues have received. As Carter alluded to, she also has a reputation for having a powerful three-point shot. That’s led pundits to suggest that players are guarding her more intensely in games and making critical comments at her expense. 

“Ya’ll petty, girls,” sports commentator and former NBA player Charles Barkley previously said. “I expect men to be petty, because we’re the most insecure group in the world. Y’all should be thanking that girl for getting y’all ass private charters, all the money and visibility she brings into the WNBA.”

Barkley’s comment, as well as statements from other male analysts like pundit Pat McAfee, who described Clark as a “white bitch” in a segment intended to praise her, are reminders of how swiftly sexist statements are activated to describe women’s sports. (McAfee has since apologized.) Or, as the Atlantic’s Jemele Hill put it: “The WNBA’s newfound popularity has triggered a boom in commentary from men who have no idea what they’re talking about.” 

Other sports analysts have responded by noting that Clark’s experiences aren’t atypical, and that star players including LeBron James and Michael Jordan are often guarded the most aggressively because, like her, they’re excellent scorers who are viewed as a threat. 

“This is just rookie hazing,” sports commentator Chris Broussard noted on Fox Sports Radio. “When you are a hot-shot rookie — and she hasn’t dominated the league, obviously, but she’s putting up great numbers for a rookie — but Jordan came in averaging 28 points, and people were physical with him.” NBA Commissioner Adam Silver similarly called it a “Welcome to the league moment.”

Monica McNutt, an ESPN sports analyst, said that there were likely multiple dynamics at play at once. “We can hold more than one truth, y’all. The idea of some players being jealous, yes, that probably exists,” she said earlier this week. “But I think since Caitlin’s made her debut, there’s been a large and loud push that it’s been Caitlin versus the [WNBA],” she added, emphasizing that there’s been an “unfair” narrative trying to pit Clark and the rest of the league against each other. 

Many of these dynamics have come to a head with the reaction to the Carter foul, which some have described as the latest example of Clark needing protection. “Basketball has rules and if the WNBA chews her up and spits her out because it is too afraid of being called racist to protect her from racially tinged animosity, or indeed from fouls such as the one Carter committed, it will have done a huge disservice to its own game,” the Chicago Tribune Editorial Board wrote.

While violations of rules should be explicitly called out, such framing is troubling because it revives long-standing tropes of Black women as aggressors and white women as requiring rescue. Additionally, this broader conversation speaks to other stereotypes of Black women being portrayed as envious of white women, as the Washington Post’s Candace Buckner writes: “The moment is being magnified as incriminating evidence that brutish Black women are jealous of the league’s supposed savior and therefore would rather manhandle her than show appreciation.” 

It’s worth noting that Clark herself has never expressed such sentiments and emphasized that she’s focused on the adjustments that she needs to do as a college player coming into the league. And as Sports Illustrated’s Clare Brennan writes, the implication that she needs protection is “paternalistic” in itself and an underestimation of Clark’s own might as a competitor. 

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