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WNBA discourse brims with racist and sexist craziness as media spotlight grows

(L-R) ESPN's "First Take" with Stephen A. Smith, Molly Qerim, Monica McNutt and Shannon Sharpe. (Screenshot via YouTube)
(L-R) ESPN's "First Take" with Stephen A. Smith, Molly Qerim, Monica McNutt and Shannon Sharpe. (Screenshot via YouTube)

OPINION: Thank goodness for women like ESPN’s Monica McNutt, who defended players from unjust criticism in a viral segment. 

Editor’s note: The following article is an op-ed, and the views expressed are the author’s own. Read more opinions on theGrio.

ESPN host Dominique Foxworth recently made an excellent point during an appearance on Bomani Jones’ podcast, noting the difference between a polarizing figure and a lightning rod. In the former category, you do or say things that drive folks into opposing camps. In the latter category, you don’t have to do or say anything. Your mere existence is enough to divide the masses.

Caitlin Clark is a lightning rod, crackling in the WNBA and throughout pop culture.

Her presence has brought added scrutiny to the 28-year-old league — where 70% of the players are Black and 100% are women. Not surprisingly, a lot of racism and sexism is on display from fans and the media.

I imagine the annoyance ESPN’s Monica McNutt feels in dealing with presumptions about (mostly) Black women’s response to adulation for Clark, a (white) rookie who’s done nothing as a pro. McNutt understands both of the aforementioned -isms — race and sex — whereas even Black men just know the half. Sometimes that comes out like it did Monday from Stephen A. Smith and Shannon Sharpe on “First Take.”

“There’s been this prevailing narrative that the WNBA is mad at this little white girl being the great white hope,” McNutt said Monday during a 40-minute opening segment that went viral. “That’s been unfair and very frustrating for those of us who have covered the league for a very long time.”

She and others are true to this, not new to this, while waves of Johns and Janes just arrived by following Clark. It reminds me of a Facebook meme I saw the other day. Someone sprinkled salt on watermelon and acted like Christopher Columbus after discovering the “new” world.  I have childhood memories of folks salting their melon.

Players don’t roll out the red carpet for a No. 1 draft pick, no matter who she is. They certainly won’t bend the knee, even though Clark is the leading force behind the explosive growth in ratings, attendance and merchandise sales. But that doesn’t make them jealous haters, a growing narrative that’s engulfed the league, even more after Chicago’s Chennedy Carter committed a flagrant foul on Clark.

Smith and Sharpe suggested that WNBA players are envious and bitter over Clark’s arrival as — to use Smith’s term — “the golden goose.” Last month, Charles Barkley accused the league’s veterans of being “petty” over Clark’s attention. LeBron James tweeted that if you “don’t rock” with Clark, you’re “a FLAT OUT HATER!”

I’m not sure how these competitive athletes are supposed to treat Clark — other than wanting to bust her ass. Not via dirty play and cheap shots (which can occur when hotheads like Carter lose composure in the heat of battle), but with all the skill, strength and physicality they can muster. No. 1 picks should expect nothing less, even if some folks believe otherwise. “This is a very physical game, and you’re going to get pressure,” Clark said last month. “This is professional basketball. It is what it is, honestly.”

But too many fans and media see something else. They see resentment and racial animus, an overriding theme in the broad portrayal of Black women. The Chicago Tribune likened Carter’s foul to a crime. “Outside of a sporting contest, it would’ve been seen as an assault,” read the editorial, perhaps written by a Karen. “Even within a sporting context, it was bad.”

Sports

It wasn’t THAT bad, but it involved Clark, painted as league savior. ESPN’s Pat McAfee summed his thoughts on the WNBA’s surge in interest and dismissed any thought that other players also deserve some credit.

“Nah, just call it for what it is,” McAfee said Monday. “There’s one white bitch for the Indiana team who is a superstar.”

There’s no wonder about who he imagines refers to her with such language.

“I shouldn’t have used ‘white bitch’ as a descriptor of Caitlin Clark,” he said later in an apology. “No matter the context … even if we’re talking about race being a reason for some of the stuff happening.”

Of course, race is a reason for some of Clark’s electricity. So is her shooting, passing and sexuality. So is her Midwestern background and girl-next-door persona. WNBA players aren’t dumb, and they aren’t monolithic in temperament. Some talk trash like Clark and some don’t. They all know she’s “the one” right now.

But there are levels to this phenomenon; full comprehension requires a layered and nuanced approach, which typically isn’t a strong suit of sports talk. McNutt returned to “First Take” on Tuesday, joined by ESPN broadcaster and former WNBA No. 1 pick Chiney Ogwumike, to further enlighten the men.

Smith kept warning about players “getting in the way” and impeding Clark’s path as the league’s cash cow. Sharpe railed against dirty play, as if Clark faces cheap shots on every trip downcourt. Everyone agreed that Carter’s foul would be a non-story minus Clark.

She is definitely a lightning rod, a white woman sparking racist and sexist craziness by her mere presence. Black women in and outside the WNBA can ask the same question:

“What else is new?”


Deron Snyder, from Brooklyn, is an award-winning columnist who lives near D.C. and pledged Alpha at HU-You Know! He’s reaching high, lying low, moving on, pushing off, keeping up, and throwing down. Got it? Get more at blackdoorventures.com/deron.

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