Saturday, July 20

Caitlin Clark has finally figured out the situation, but she has to consider the agenda surrounding her name

INDIANAPOLIS — Athletes often speak in general terms as a defense mechanism. Instead of delving into a potentially controversial topic, or even addressing the issue, they provide non-answers, using clichés and pre-planned talking points to keep themselves at a safe distance.

Part of me would like to believe that this is what Caitlin Clark did Thursday morning when I asked her if she was bothered by fans using her name as a weapon in the culture wars dividing the country. The Indiana Fever’s star guard hasn’t closed the door on the topic; she refused to even open it.

“No,” he declared. “I don’t see it. I don’t see it. That’s not where my focus is. My focus is here and on basketball. That’s where it needs to be, that’s where it’s been, and I’m just trying to get better every day.

Clark backtracked five hours later, telling reporters that “people shouldn’t use my name to promote these agendas,” but the damage had already been done. Connecticut Sun winger DiJonai Carrington was among those who spoke out against his initial comments, calling them “misogyny, xenophobia, homophobia and the intersectionality of it all.” This is all crazy. We all see shit. We all have a platform. We all have a voice and we all matter. Silence is a luxury.

It’s no surprise that Clark initially tries to avoid the topic. He’s a freshman struggling to find his way on a new team in a new league, at a time when the shots that fell so regularly in college now miss his mark more frequently. Instead of being the key man, which contributed to his enormous popularity at Iowa, he sometimes gets benched in the waning moments due to turnover issues.

But you can’t hide behind basketball when you’ve been anointed as the transcendent, rising wave that will carry the WNBA to greater prosperity. And you certainly can’t do that when people use your name as a vehicle to promote racism, misogyny, homophobia and other social ills. To whom much is given, much is required, in fact.

The topic is sure to come up again Sunday, when the Chicago Sky come to town. Chicago players Chennedy Carter and Angel Reese were targets of Clark supporters following separate incidents with Clark. Sky players said Carter and other team members were harassed at a team hotel days after he leveled Clark with a dirty hip check on June 1. And Reese drew the ire of some Clark fans for taunting Clark during LSU’s national championship victory two seasons ago.

But they aren’t the only women of color who have been attacked or marginalized by those trying to defend Clark. Teammate Aliyah Boston deleted one of her social media accounts because she was tired of being bombarded by “couch coaches,” many of whom sought to divert attention from Clark’s early struggles by pointing out Boston’s shortcomings .

Las Vegas Aces center A’ja Wilson is widely considered the WNBA’s best player and a big-name ambassador for the game and its players. But when she responded that race is a “huge” factor in why black players haven’t received the same kind of attention or marketing opportunities as Clark, social media went into overdrive, with one person writing, “My advice to A’ja Wilson, instead of giving this young lady’s popularity credit for running in a league where 60% of the players are black, you should thank Caitlin Clark because without her I wouldn’t know who you are or talk about your sport.

There is a tradition in professional sports that high-profile freshmen must be tested. The veterans attack them hard to see what they are made of. It doesn’t matter the sport or the sex. But when Carrington fouled Clark and mocked the freshman for what she perceived as a contact embellishment, much of the social media commentary was predictable. “Caitlin Clark was targeted by black players again on Monday, this time in Connecticut,” one person wrote. “Suns guard (sic) DiJonai Carrington violently checked Clark and then taunted her after the clear foul. The crowd booed. If the games had been reversed, Carrington would have been ejected.”

Clark didn’t comment, but I was curious about his feelings about people who use his name as a tool of division. His initial response Thursday morning: “It’s not something I can control, so I don’t spend too much time and thought thinking about things like that. And to be honest, I don’t see much of it. Like I said, basketball is my job. Everything that is outside I can’t control, so I won’t spend time thinking about it. People can talk about what they want to talk about, create conversations about whatever, but I think, as far as I’m concerned, I’m just here to play basketball. I’m just here to have fun. I’m trying to help our team win. … I don’t pay much attention to any of that, to be honest.

But is she honest? It must be said that Clark is 22 years old and faces enormous demands and expectations. This should certainly provide her with a certain level of grace. However, her comments were troubling because they lacked awareness and empathy for black peers who do not have the privilege to distance themselves from the “isms” they regularly encounter.

Carrington compared her silence to luxury. I see it as complicity.

Maybe he didn’t want to address it fully because of the sensitivity involved? Or maybe he was taking the advice of his inner circle, including advisers who might believe it’s more beneficial to say nothing? It worked well for Michael Jordan and Tiger Woods, even if it sent the message that money was more important than morality. But the initial reluctance to stand up to hate and harassment was always going to be problematic in a league that’s predominantly black and has a sizable LGBTQ+ population.

Coincidentally, her comments came the same day the Women’s National Basketball Players Association published an article in The Players’ Tribune highlighting how proud its members are of their history of fighting social injustice. “Our work has always been bigger than basketball,” she said at one point.

That’s why it was important for Clark to revisit his comments Thursday night, about an hour before tip-off against the Atlanta Dream. He risked losing the respect of some of his peers, especially at a time when more and more prominent white players are calling themselves allies in the fight against racism and homophobia.

It would have been obvious and problematic for a league that prides itself on inclusion and acceptance to have its most visible player remain silent on the sidelines when legendary WNBA guard Sue Bird spoke out in a 2020 CNN piece, or UConn guard Paige Bueckers addressed it during her 2021 ESPYs acceptance speech, or former LSU guard Hailey Van Lith last March called criticism of her Black teammates racist, or Los Angeles Sparks rookie Cameron Brink said last week, “I recognize that there is privilege for younger white players in the league.”

No one is asking Clark to become a social activist or to be a prominent face in the fight for respect, but it is important that she at least denounce those who might use her name to foment hatred and division.

“It’s disappointing, it’s not acceptable…,” he said before warning people who use his name to push agendas. “This league is a league that I grew up admiring and wanted to be a part of. Some of the women in this league were my biggest idols and role models growing up. … Treating every single woman in this league with the same respect is just a basic human thing that everyone should do. Just be a kind person and treat them as you would like to be treated.”

It may have taken her a while to express those feelings, but that shouldn’t overshadow the fact that she finally got to the right place. It was a positive step for her and the League.

(Photo: Greg Fiume/Getty Images)