An image of Caitlin Clark, Stephen A. Smith and Donald Trump. Caitlin Clark, Stephen A. Smith and Donald Trump.

Caitlin Clark didn’t quite have her “Republicans buy sneakers too” moment on Thursday.

But she came close.

Asked by The Athletic’s Jim Trotter how she felt about her name being used in culture wars, the Indiana Fever star rookie said that her focus remained on basketball and that it wasn’t something she has paid attention to. That drew a response from Connecticut Sun guard DiJonai Carrington, who took issue with Clark’s ambivalent approach.

Clark was later asked a more specific question, which resulted in a more specific answer, calling her name being weaponized in conversations involving racism and misogyny “disappointing.”

“Everybody in our world deserves to have the same amount of respect,” the 22-year-old said. “The women in our league deserve the same amount of respect. People should not be using my name to push those agendas. It’s disappointing. It’s not acceptable.”

Clark’s second answer, however, didn’t stop her first answer and Carrington’s ensuing response from becoming talking points on ESPN’s slate of morning shows. That included on First Take, where Stephen A. Smith invoked former President Donald Trump to make a point about the factor race plays in most of the Caitlin Clark related controversies.

“There’s a broader issue here that can’t be escaped. And that is this: she is a white, young lady,” Smith said. “And she’s been a magnet in a way that has benefitted the league in ways that others have not, even though their efforts have been worthy and deserving of being as celebrated if not even more celebrated. Add it’s a reminder that no matter how far we believe that we have advanced as a society, there’s still such a long way to go. Because in the end, if you’re white, you’re bright, you’re right and as a result the shine comes your way in the eyes of a lot of people in America.

“Let’s transition. Very uncomfortable to touch on, but just factually correct. You have somebody that’s a presidential candidate. What is his claim to fame? Make America Great Again. What have people interpreted that to mean? Make America White Again… what has that led to? A divide. It is not a divide that is created. It is a divide that is illuminated because it’s highlighting and showing that it’s been in existence all along. It hasn’t gone anywhere.”

Smith proceeded to note that such factors helped him understand where Carrington was coming from, but added that he doesn’t hold Caitlin Clark accountable for the way her name has weaponized by others. He also said the former Iowa superstar needs to understand that “it’s not really you personally, it’s you the figure, it’s you, the prop, per se, that is being utilized to address a bigger point.”

“There’s still a lot of work to be done,” Smith said. “Because things haven’t changed as much as we’d like to believe, period.”

To Smith’s point, while it hasn’t always been acknowledged, race has been an underlying factor in many of the Clark-related controversies. And while Smith has long been a proponent of sticking to sports, that trend has seemingly changed as the 2024 election approaches with Donald Trump set to face Joe Biden once again.

About Ben Axelrod

Ben Axelrod is a veteran of the sports media landscape, having most recently worked for NBC's Cleveland affiliate, WKYC. Prior to his time in Cleveland, he covered Ohio State football and the Big Ten for outlets including Cox Media Group, Bleacher Report, Scout and Rivals.