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Caitlin Clark faces basketball's brightest spotlight as WNBA rookie

Caitlin Clark faces basketball's brightest spotlight as WNBA rookie originally appeared on NBC Sports Bay Area

A few days before Caitlin Clark was dropped by a hip-check foul that later was upgraded to flagrant, vaulting the WNBA to the top of the national sports discourse, the spotlight on the heralded Indiana Fever rookie was addressed by two prominent guests on NBC Sports Bay Area’s "Dubs Talk" podcast.

Golden State Valkyries president Jess Smith and general manager Ohemaa Nyanin, both observing from a distance, were discerning and supportive about the challenges before Clark. Nyanin went to the heart of the matter.

“In every sport there are athletes that come in really young and either excel or don't excel, based off their experiences,” she said. “And the drastic rise in watching our sport that we have invested so much into ...

“To all the haters out there: Leave her alone.”

Nyanin and Smith want the WNBA to flourish and clearly realize that the Clark Hype is boosting ticket sales and viewership. That there are “fans” familiar with her but couldn’t name her team, or any of her teammates, positions Clark as a uniquely welcome gift to a league still seeking its place within our national sports fandom.

There is nothing to indicate Clark will be granted the relative serenity of being immersed in no more than the game, for we are living in the age of loud and gratuitous hate, sometimes from competitors and always from keyboard goons populating social media.

Newcomers in every sport face hazing whether from teammates or opponents, as Chicago Sky rookie Angel Reese can testify. As young Stephen Curry experienced. The greater the hype, the harder the hazing. Hazers, like haters, relish in delivering harsh messages – and Clark is among the latest potential stars to receive frequent “welcome to the W” greetings.

Clark, however, quickly has become a social experiment. And that adds broader dimension to her challenges.

Though the stressors on Clark do not rate with those Jackie Robinson endured in 1947, there are some similarities. She is, like Jackie, the subject of intense focus while performing before the most eyes ever placed upon the league. She is, like Jackie, trying to present her best self while knowing some folks will celebrate every stumble, and a few contemporaries will throw shade.

And, unfortunately but unsurprisingly, Clark also contends with a very real racial component that, implied or overt, exhibits the most elemental failing of American society.

Clark, who is white, is not the best player in the predominately Black WNBA. Not even close. She leads all rookies in scoring (15.6 points per game), but her efficiency ranks near the bottom. Her 6.4 assists per game ranks fourth, but her turnover rate is the highest in the league. There is enough skill to suggest stardom is achievable, but Clark is firmly in the developmental phase.

Her impact, however, already is of great value to the WNBA. She is the shiny new toy that was granted star status on Day 1. As the W’s biggest individual attraction for the coveted casual-fan demographic, she is first among the reasons every player in the league soon can expect a higher standard of living.

“From a revenue perspective,” Smith said, “you're seeing the endorsement deals flow her way and then lean into the visibility, placing her next to other athletes of incredible caliber. She is still a rookie. So, I also think and hope that the narratives around her play are inclusive of the overall storyline. That she's just getting started; she was literally playing college [in April].

“She comes into a brand new atmosphere, brand new coach, brand new everything in her life – and is expected to perform under the pressure that she has. It's a lot. I think about her often and just hope that she's taking care of herself and giving herself some grace. She's growing into the league.”

Not yet a month into her professional career, Clark is a near-daily topic of conversation in all forms of sports media. It’s a lot to endure for a 22-year-old who grew up in Iowa and became a star at the University of Iowa. She wants to shoot long-range 3s, flip dimes and win games – but now embodies the growth spurt of an entire league.

That’s where we are. And Clark is struggling. The Fever opened the season with a brutal schedule and five consecutive losses. After Indiana (2-9) lost seven of its first eight, those covering the team have noted that the heat is taking a toll on the rookie.

“Just let her do what she needs to do,” Nyanin said. “And knowing her, she puts enough pressure on herself that she doesn't need everybody else too. I watched a postgame presser recently where she says, ‘Yeah, I'm not really on social media.’ And I thought to myself ‘Yes!’ ”

Boycotting social media can be good for the soul. Many athletes have done so and found it liberating. It can be toxic; it has been linked to thousands of suicides and attempted suicides. But it’s only one portion of the equation that must be navigated to survive succeed in professional sports.

Internal pressure can be more dangerous. The WNBA is in its 28th season, and it is growing. Clark’s arrival accelerated the growth. Her televised debut on May 14 set a league viewership record. She is money. Realizing this, as Clark surely does, brings its own pressure.

Yes, the WNBA has many stars, many of whom are better than Clark. She happens to be among at least four rookies with the goods to become franchise players. The spotlight on her is brighter and more incessant than that on the other three combined.

“I’ve thought about this a lot,” Nyanin said. “I've gone back and forth with myself, and I've gone back and forth with my ‘tribe,’ as I call them, and people that I can speak freely to and [say] this is what I think about this person's ability to play on the court. I don't know what fair is based off how social media has taken opinion to be fact.

“And so, where I'm going to land is this: I think that as much as people have hyped Caitlin more, specifically, they should give her the grace to grow within this new venture that she's in just as much as they would any other athlete.”

The W was splendid before Caitlin Clark. With her, it can be more splendid and certainly generate more revenue.

If Clark can stay healthy and get enough space to breathe and be all she can be, she has the potential to be among those who are a win for their team, while also raising the profile of the league and all of women’s sports.

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