Caitlin Clark and the politics of ‘pretty privilege’

Indiana Fever's Caitlin Clark speaks during a WNBA news conference, Wednesday, April 17, 2024, in Indianapolis.

In addition to being a phenomenal basketball player, Caitlin Clark is, by most standards, an objectively attractive woman. This is not why she’s been featured on the cover of many magazines; those honors owe to her athletic ability and the global attention she has brought to women’s basketball.

Sure, Sports Illustrated or ESPN Magazine might sell a few extra magazines when the person on the cover is, as they say, “easy to look at.” But athletes are primarily given acclaim for other gifts.

This distinction has been lost in the national conversation about “privilege,” which seeks to knock people down, instead of celebrating them.

And this is what happened recently to Clark, when the former Iowa standout’s popularity was attributed, in part, to “pretty privilege” and “white privilege” by Sunny Hostin on the talk show “The View.”

While applauding Clark’s ability to draw new fans to women’s basketball, Hostin then undercut her own praise by saying, “There is a thing called pretty privilege, there is a thing called white privilege, there is a thing called tall privilege, and we have to acknowledge that.” As Fox News reported, she went on to say that Clark’s popularity was also aided by her being heterosexual.

The audience, which had clapped for Hostin’s first remarks about Clark, did not applaud those comments, and other hosts pushed back, including Whoopi Goldberg, who said, “To have her reduced that way bothered me a lot because this is her record. Unless you can show me who’s got a better record than this, this is why she’s getting the attention she’s getting, because she’s a damn good player and doesn’t matter whether she’s straight or gay, ain’t nobody crying when she’s making those balls.”

Co-host Alyssa Farah Griffin also noted that Clark was simply “so fun to watch.”

While it’s encouraging to see someone like Goldberg, known for her liberal views, to challenge the language of privilege, the societal effects of such language were on display in the recent cheap shot leveled by Chennedy Carter against Clark, which was later deemed by the WNBA a “Flagrant 1″ foul.

The foul, which occurred during the third quarter of the Indiana-Chicago game June 1, was widely decried.

In her first public comments about the incident, Clark spoke with grace and class to Christine Brennan of USA Today, saying, “Sometimes it stinks how much the conversation is outside of basketball and not the product on the floor and the amazing players that are on the floor and how good they are for their teams and how great this season has been for women’s basketball.”

She also noted that she doesn’t pay much attention to social media, which might be another reason — besides “tall privilege” and years of unrelenting focus and practice — that she’s so good at her sport. There are many reasons people succeed that don’t involve undeserved advantage, which is what talk of privilege implies.

There are, of course, personal rivalries and spats in all professional endeavors, not just in the intensity of sports competition, and it was reported that Clark and Carter had exchanged heated words prior to the foul. Carter’s foul was likely a combination of court rage and a momentary lapse of impulse control, which we see in the greatest of athletes, including Tom Brady.

Still, it’s naive to think that larger public conversations about “privilege” don’t settle into personal interactions like some toxic particulate matter. They foment resentment. Caitlin Clark hate might arise from the muck of any primordial sin, from jealousy to wrath to pride, and is surely as difficult to eradicate as any other unsavory aspect of human nature. But we don’t have to feed it with careless and inflammatory language.

In another time, we might have simply called Clark “gifted” — instead of “privileged” — which is another way of noting the ways Clark stands out without all the toxicity. In his first letter to the Corinthians, Paul wrote about the Holy Spirit distributing gifts of the Spirit to believers, including wisdom, healing, prophecy and the working of miracles. For the “privilege” of these gifts, many of these disciples were martyred, but that is not the point. The point is, that language matters, and it is a much different thing to remark on someone’s gifts than to denigrate their privilege.

Caitlin Clark, like her teammate Aliyah Boston, is beautiful and tall, and a really good basketball player. Both women are exceptionally gifted. How great for them — how great for basketball. How great for all of us who have the privilege to watch them.