Like many others, I was excited about the WNBA opening its doors to new fandom. The 2024-2025 season is coming off the headwinds of an NCAA women’s basketball tournament that drew record-high viewership and boasted an incredible draft class with players such as Angel Reese, Kamilla Cardosa, Cameron Brink, and the highly decorated Caitlin Clark. It felt like a perfect synergy, as the WNBA was experiencing record-high ratings. With more eyes, the hope is that you get fans that follow the new players as they grow like we do the men’s game while ingratiating themselves within the league’s history. 

If you get into the budding rivalry between the New York Liberty and the Las Vegas Aces, perhaps you want to go back and see highlights of legends past like Lisa Leslie, Tina Thompson, Sheryl Swoopes, Dawn Staley, and a plethora of others who have built the game into what it is—at least that’s what the hope is. While that excitement still exists, expectations and reductive comparisons of what people expect from the league and its players exist. The growing popularity of the WNBA is meeting sports media and overall public discussion at a fever pitch where hot takes are the lay of the land, and nuanced discussion gives way to the loudest voices (this is why you see Lebron James legacy debates whenever there’s a slow news day. It’s easy money). It’s in speaking in absolutes where some of the weirdest opinions are spoken, but also displaying a culture that is not yet equipped to cover a popular women’s league with the smarts that it needs (or elevate the voices of those who are already)

Could you imagine if sports commentators and former players in the early 1990s got on their various platforms and said that the Detroit “Bad Boy” Pistons teams should take it easy on Michael Jordan? They would hate it, and the competitor, arguably the greatest player ever to pick up a basketball, would also. So, why are there calls for players in the WNBA to take a little heat off their fastball when they play against Caitlin Clark? Clark is one of the most decorated college basketball players in history, men and women. She didn’t get that far because the LSUs and the South Carolinas all collectively decided to allow her to win to keep capturing the attention of the masses. Clark was the first overall pick in this year’s draft and one of the most anticipated number-one picks in history because of her hard work in her craft. You don’t go to back-to-back NCAA titles without that hunger. 

When people come together to view the game for the first time and see that things get a little chippy with a little bit of trash talk (that Clark also indulges in) and recoil at the fact that its happenings speak to a storyline continuing from the college tournament and the early days of the WNBA. There’s this prevailing undercurrent of how women should play sports games as if they can’t exhibit the emotions that the men do (and are often cheered for). They can’t throw hard screens, yell, and argue with the refs because of this societal expectation of how women are supposed to carry themselves. The pro game is physical, and there’s a learning curve with any rookie, no matter how good you are. Caitlin Clark is transitioning with the noise around her from observers begging players to allow her to skip steps for “the good of the game.” It doesn’t help Clark, the players around her, and the entire game itself. The flagrant foul Chicago Sky guard Chennedy Carter committed against Clark this past Saturday wasn’t right, but it has happened countless times in the NBA. What was different was Clark’s coddling and the vitriol levied against Sky’s players.

Imagine playing NBA 2K24 in rookie mode, where you’re smoking the computer by 40 points every game. When you step it up a notch, those blowouts will become close calls and losses until you make the necessary adjustments. The only protection Clark needs would come from her coach and teammates, not from those who state they’ll never watch another WNBA if this continues. That line of thinking gives away some of the racist comments sent in the direction of Carter and Angel Reese. It gives bad-faith actors a runway to possibly believe this predominately Black league should be thankful because of the popularity of one white player. Many players have already expressed gratitude for what Clark’s stardom brings to the league. It doesn’t mean they should roll out the red carpet for her to dominate what many have spent years already doing. Despite being long-time sports fans, the fans and some of the pundits can’t quite translate the earning aspects of sports to this very example. 

It’s basketball, not jealousy. If the WNBA continues to grow in size and fan adoration, we will have to look in the mirror and check our biases at the door. That also means we must all be comfortable being novices, not experts, and peel back the layers of how we view women and what a narrow view of excellence is. Sometimes, you’re a guest, and that’s okay. I’m sure Caitlin Clark isn’t clamoring to let the team in front of her venture down the yellow brick road to greatness—why would we expect that in the first place?

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