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Shakeia Taylor: The latest WNBA discourse is downright messy — and it’s not about basketball

CHICAGO — WNBA fans, let’s talk.

We’re less than a month into the season and the discourse is out of control. For many years, interest in the league was considered pretty niche. A dedicated community of fans held down the WNBA space by creating blogs to share news and stories, designing and selling apparel and other merchandise, and starting communities both online and in real life with the intention of “growing the game.”

Now that the growth, investment and interest that the league’s longtime supporters have wanted are here, it doesn’t look as pretty.

In fact, it’s downright messy. And it’s not about basketball.

Indiana Fever guard Caitlin Clark and her logo 3-pointers have brought a great number of eyes to the WNBA. Through no fault of her own, the constant coverage of her college career and the beginning of her rookie season has put every aspect of every game she plays under a microscope — including the actions of her opponents.

Was the hip check by Chicago Sky guard Chennedy Carter on Saturday unnecessary and not a basketball play? Absolutely. Was it the end of the world and a reflection of how everyone feels about Clark? Absolutely not.

Referring to the foul as assault is dangerous and extreme rhetoric. Using language that implies criminal activity plays into stereotypes and racial undertones that are pervasive throughout these discussions. Basketball players, including Clark, push and shove all the time. Physical play is a characteristic of the game, and calls for Clark to be handled softly seemingly miss that.

If she draws a double team, Clark is being defended unfairly. If she is fouled, the other team has it out for her. If she is on the bench, the coach clearly doesn’t know what she’s doing. (There are multiple change.org petitions calling for Fever coach Christie Sides to be fired due to disapproval of how she has managed the team with Clark.)

Fans and media new to talking about the WNBA seem surprised by the league’s physicality, skill and diversity of personal stories that have gone untold. But instead of watching, listening and learning — in addition to contributing to the conversations at such an exciting time in WNBA history — some are quick to dismiss just about anyone with even a game-related criticism of Clark. People who would admit they’re new to the league or to women’s basketball suddenly are positioning themselves as experts on the W’s culture.

And they’re dominating the conversations.

Sweeping generalizations have been made by people such as Charles Barkley, LeBron James and Stephen A. Smith. Veteran players have been called jealous, “haters” and “thugs” by people who believe there is some concerted effort to dull Clark’s shine. These are professional athletes in competition, and I wonder if some of this is fueled by the idea that women are supposed to play nice and get along.

There also have been conversations that every good thing happening currently for the WNBA and its players is thanks to Clark — and that they should simply be grateful for her presence.

While there’s some validity to the idea that some players resent Clark for being put on a pedestal and anointed the G.O.A.T., signing record-breaking endorsement deals and having most of her games on national television, we should be careful not to paint all of the players with such a broad stroke. Takes like these thrive on us versus them and an either/or mindset that has overtaken the WNBA community.

There are more than 100 players in the WNBA, so there is likely a mixture of feelings throughout. The thing about humans is we can feel more than one thing at a time and not necessarily act on any one emotion. It’s important we don’t assume to know what anyone is thinking. Projecting malice says more about us than the people we’re projecting our feelings on.

There always will be someone who doesn’t like the person getting the most attention and sympathy, but there’s an ugliness to these conversations that isn’t being put in proper context. The WNBA is predominantly Black and substantially queer, and most discussions surrounding the league lately try their hardest to avoid those facts. Any attempt to bring this up in conversation is met with “Why is it always about race?” or “It’s not that deep, it’s just sports.” But as WNBA veteran Imani McGee-Stafford wrote on social media, “It actually IS that deep.”

When we talk about why the WNBA was largely ignored for decades or even the language used in defense of Clark, you have to mention the Blackness and queerness. It would be naive to act as if these aren’t important layers to the nastiness we’re seeing. The truth of the matter is until we stop acting as if these aren’t issues — whether conscious or subconscious — we’ll never be able to move forward.

Since its inception, the WNBA has fought against perceptions of its queerness.

“The WNBA kind of fell into the trap that women’s sports throughout history have fallen into, which is the belief that in order to find an audience, the women have to appeal to men, particularly straight men and the male gaze,” Frankie de la Cretaz, a journalist who covers the intersection of sports and gender, told the Tribune.

“The players’ femininity was played up in a lot of the advertisements. They didn’t really talk about their personal life or family, or the players that they did allow to speak publicly were ones who were married to men or had children or families. And so those straight partnerships were really emphasized in the press.”

That issue is mentioned in 13-time All-Star and four-time WNBA champion Sue Bird’s documentary, “Sue Bird: In the Clutch”. Bird, the No. 1 pick in the 2002 draft, came out in 2017, more than a decade after entering the league.

“I think (Bird) is relevant here because there’s this pattern in the WNBA of kind of looking for the next ‘Great White Hope’ who will ‘save’ a predominantly Black sport and make it appeal to more mainstream — read: white — audiences,” de la Cretaz explained. “And the important thing is not just that person is white, but that person is straight. And so we see that with Caitlin Clark. You can look at Sue Bird and see the way that was done when they put her on a red carpet with Nick Carter of the Backstreet Boys her rookie year.”

Bird discussed it earlier this year in an interview with Pablo Torre.

“It was basically told to me that the only way I was going to have success from a marketing standpoint is to really sell this straight, girl-next-door (image),” Bird told “Pablo Finds Out” in February. “At 21, I was afraid.”

In 2021, the Sports Business Journal found a disparity in media coverage of WNBA players.

“A’ja Wilson, the 2020 WNBA MVP who is Black, received half as much media coverage last season as Sabrina Ionescu, the first pick in the 2020 WNBA draft who played in just three games before a season-ending injury and who is white,” the report said.

Longtime fans are on high alert, aware of the WNBA’s history of promoting white players and pushing back against new narratives, as those fans have been the unofficial keepers of the game for more than two decades. They’ve pointed to this as the reason Clark fans refer to her as “more marketable” than Wilson and others, but in their zeal to protect the players they love, the arguments on social media have descended into chaos. Their points, rooted in both truth and history, are dismissed as “hating on Caitlin Clark.”

While Clark is not to be blamed for that, her presence has highlighted or perhaps even exacerbated the issue. The expectations placed on her by her own fans have put Clark in a position where her basketball game is hardly discussed. There’s no talk of shot selection, efficiency or a single show-stopping highlight. There’s also no talk of her demeanor on the court when things aren’t going her way. Instead, we are subjected to multiday discourse over a flagrant foul.

In their rush to defend Clark, newcomers fail to see the historical, systemic issues at play and instead assume everyone is picking on their favorite player. And until the disparity is addressed, the fighting and debates will continue.

Maybe one day we’ll get back to the basketball of it all.

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