Caitlin Clark’s Rise Sparks Debate About Race, Gender, and Women’s Sports

Indiana Fever v Washington Mystics

Caitlin Clark’s arrival in the WNBA has sparked a level of discussion and debate unlike anything we’ve seen in sports before. The closest comparison I can draw is Tebowmania, about a decade ago, when the former Heisman Trophy-winning quarterback enjoyed some success in the NFL with the Denver Broncos. Tebow’s open display of his Christian faith ignited conversations about the appropriateness of religion in public spaces, specifically the football field. The media covered Tebow constantly. However, his career eventually faded, his throwing motion never quite reaching a professional level. 

Clark is not going anywhere—she’s an exceptional athlete, and even the Tebow comparison is flawed. Tebow actually did something to justify discussions about off-field issues like religion: he openly embraced his faith. Clark, on the other hand, is stirring up a debate about race, gender, and the growth of women’s sports by simply doing what she always has: playing basketball with passion. 

This phenomenon reemerged this weekend when news broke that Clark was left off the Team USA roster for the upcoming Olympics. Media commentators across the spectrum erupted in outrage. One right-leaning sports outlet called Clark’s Olympic exclusion an “All-Time WTF decision.” Meanwhile, USA Today columnist Christine Brennan wrote that “having covered the Olympics for 40 years (gulp), I’ve seen some bad team and athlete selection decisions. This is the worst.” Bill Plaschke of the Los Angeles Times wrote, “shame on them,” referring to USA Basketball officials.

“This is about what I will personally label ‘The Idiocy of Team USA Women’s Basketball,’” ESPN’s Stephen A. Smith declared on the morning debate show, First Take, on Monday. “How dare you make this decision. It’s stupid.”

All this outrage seems strange. While the core argument for Clark’s inclusion makes sense – Clark’s impact on WNBA attendance and viewership is undeniable – it would have been good business for USA Basketball to include her. It would have kept the momentum for women’s basketball strong throughout the summer. Plus, Clark is more than capable on the court. Team USA can always benefit from a sharpshooter.

If USA Basketball had put Clark on the team and been transparent about the business benefits, that would be one thing. But since when do sports-media commentators prioritize ratings above all else? Since when is capitalism the primary concern? What about fairness, supposedly a fundamental tenet of sports? 

Every player on the 12-person Team USA roster deserves her spot. Who would you replace with Clark? Kelsey Plum, who won gold in Tokyo and has since won two straight titles with the Las Vegas Aces? Her promotion to the 5×5 team was based on merit. The three first-time Olympians, Alyssa Thomas, Sabrina Ionescu, and Kahleah Copper, are all accomplished WNBA pros who played on the U.S. team that won the World Cup in Australia in 2022. Their loyalty to the program was rewarded with an Olympic invite. What’s wrong with that? The youngest players on the team are 26. Clark is 22. Not a single rookie made the squad.

Clark recently tied the WNBA rookie record for most threes in a game and she became the fastest player to get to at least 200 points and 50 assists in the WNBA history, but these are tough decisions. Players with more impressive pro resumes than Clark have been snubbed. Tamika Catchings was a two-time WNBA MVP when she was left off the Rio Olympic roster. Going into Tokyo, Diana Taurasi was a WNBA MVP who also earned MVP honors in the Olympic qualifying tournament for those games. She watched Team USA win gold from home.

Yes, other stars right out of college, like Sue Bird in 2004 and Breanna Stewart in 2016, joined Olympic teams right away. But the WNBA has benefited from a deeper talent pool in recent years; that talent drove viewership and engagement to new highs even before Clark entered the league. It’s a testament to the depth of talent that the Americans will be the overwhelming favorite without Clark. 

And plenty of people will be invested in Team USA in Paris. The Japan-USA women’s hoops final in Tokyo averaged 7.8 million viewers, according to Nielsen, the largest audience for any women’s basketball game in at least five years. For context: Clark’s WNBA debut drew 2.1 million, making it the league’s most-viewed game since 2001. An impressive Olympics showing will continue to draw eyeballs to the game, and Clark will receive a well-deserved break before continuing to sell out arenas post-Paris. She’s also on track to make the team in L.A., in 2028. Women’s basketball will be more than fine.

All the noise surrounding Caitlin Clark could use a timeout. Since her arrival, many prominent pundits and athletes have had less-than-ideal moments in her sphere. Indianapolis Star columnist Gregg Doyel made a comment to Clark at her debut Fever press conference, earning him a suspension. Charles Barkley called women in the WNBA “petty” due to some of the resistance the rookie has faced in the WNBA, conveniently forgetting that jealousy of male superstars is also common: according to NBA lore, during his rookie year, some veterans decided to intentionally miss shots in the All-Star Game. Pat McAfee called Clark a “white bitch” on his show last week. Good grief.

On the court, the understandable desire to compete and put a rookie like Clark in her place has at times gone too far. Chicago Sky guard Chennedy Carter hip-checked Clark to the ground during a game; the flagrant foul was a cheap shot. Sky rookie Morgan Bertsch cheered the hit from the sidelines: not cool. But maybe Black players like Reese and two-time WNBA champion Brittney Griner wouldn’t have to point out the obvious—that players like them are also phenomenal, or that the WNBA has long had phenomenal players—if commentators weren’t so focused on Clark, to the exclusion of others.

Clark, for her part, seems to understand that so much of the frenzy surrounding her is out of her control and is just trying to play the game she was hired to play. “I think it just gives you something to work for,” Clark said in reaction to her so-called Olympic snub. “I know it’s the most competitive team in the world, and I know it could have gone either way of me being on the team or me not being on the team. I’m excited for them. Going to be rooting them on to win gold.”

That should say it all. Let’s let the storm settle. Let Clark focus on her game. Good things will follow.