May 24, 2024; Los Angeles, California, USA; Indiana Fever guard Caitlin Clark (22) loos on from the bench in the first half against the Los Angeles Sparks at Arena. Mandatory Credit: Jayne Kamin-Oncea-USA TODAY Sports Credit: Jayne Kamin-Oncea-USA TODAY Sports

Buckle up, WNBA fans. The Caitlin Clark discourse is going to get even more insufferable. And we’re not even to the All-Star break yet.

Before last night’s Fever game against the Atlanta Dream, Clark was asked a pair of similar questions about her name being used for nefarious reasons.

In the first interview, Jim Trotter somewhat vaguely asked Clark for her thoughts about her name being weaponized in non-sports contexts, to which Clark replied: “It’s not something I can control…And to be honest, I don’t see a lot of it. People can talk about what they want to talk about… I’m just here to play basketball.”

Clark’s response didn’t impress Connecticut Sun guard, Dijonai Carrington, who later tweeted: “Dawg. How one can not be bothered by their name being used to justify racism, bigotry, misogyny, xenophobia, homophobia & the intersectionalities of them all is nuts. We all see the sh*t. We all have a platform. We all have a voice & they all hold weight. Silence is a luxury.”

Clark then clarified her stance in a second interview with James Boyd, who asked more pointedly about her name being used to justify racism and misogyny, as Carrington alluded to, stating that, “It’s disappointing… Everybody in our world deserves the same amount of respect. The women in our league deserve the same amount of respect.”

While Stephen A. Smith, Outkick, and many of Clark’s new fans are praising her lukewarm answers, it runs counter to much of what the WNBA has stood for, which builds activism into its branding. After all, this is the league that played a major role in flipping the U.S. Senate in 2020. It’s a unique angle for the WNBA’s newest viewers, plenty of whom are used to men’s leagues folding under political pressure for the sake of appeasing its fans. 

But the W is built different–with its activist history, which includes initiating the anthem protest Colin Kaepernick became famous for, protesting police brutality amid league sanctions for doing so, and flawlessly executing its “Vote Warnock” campaign in 2020, the popularity of the WNBA and its teams has still skyrocketed today. It’s not that the W engages in such advocacy for clicks, views, and money, but, as Carrington said, silence on political issues is not a luxury to many of the WNBA’s members, who are predominately Black and LGBTQ. In the words of Seattle Storm star,  Nneka Ogwumike, “Our league is made up of the people that require more rights in this world and our society.” 

The disconnect here is that whereas social justice is built into the fabric of the WNBA, men’s leagues have shied away from these topics for years – whether it’s the NFL brushing domestic violence under the rug, Tiger Woods’s famous neutrality on political issues, or Michael Jordan’s infamous “Republicans buy sneakers, too” line.

Before her WNBA career began, Clark has always positioned herself as the small town girl who made it big, which was great for her image–in doing so, she not only became the biggest name in basketball by endearing her fans, but she inspired millions of young girls in the process, which will pay dividends for those girls and the WNBA in the future.

However, her squeaky clean (if not neutral) persona isn’t exactly compatible with the kind of political activism the WNBA is famous for. Clark has always kept her opinions on topics like abortion, police brutality, racism, and LGBTQ rights close to her chest. She’s the quintessential “stick to sports athlete,” who just said it herself that she just wants to play basketball because it’s her job.

While that’s understandable for a 22-year old rookie like Clark who is currently carrying the weight of the world on her shoulders, it ironically also contributes to the pressure she feels. In choosing neutrality, Clark has fashioned herself into a blank slate and sports media has been taking full advantage of her by projecting their ideals onto her, knowing that she won’t punch back unless seriously provoked.

Of course Clark is attracting hordes of “shut up and dribble” fans because in hyper fixating on Clark, they can tune out, enjoy the game, and demand the rest of the league follow her lead because, according to them, Clark is the only reason those fans are gracing women’s basketball with their presence, so she’s the only player who matters.

That’s literally what some people are saying. After Clark’s Olympic snub, Barstool Sports’s founder, Dave Portnoy chastised the “dumb women” who left her off the roster and released a T-shirt with five of Clark’s likenesses holding one Olympic ring apiece with the caption: The Only Player Who Matters.

Longtime WNBA fans also see this discourse for what it is: male entitlement veiled in false advocacy for women’s sports trumpeted by men who have never bothered with women’s basketball before this season. And as David Dennis Jr. alluded to last week, they often use Clark as an “avatar for people to express disdain for Black women.” If you need an example of that, just take a look at the excessive, fawning Outkick coverage of her compared to the two articles they had posted about the league before this year in the site’s entire existence. It also helps that Clark is straight and white, as others like Jemele Hill have pointed out, while the predominantly queer, Black pool of athletes have made the WNBA what it is today.

While Clark’s silence on similar issues can be attributed to a variety of factors, from her youth to her branding to sheer media exhaustion, it hasn’t stopped others in a similar space from speaking out. After all, white players her age like Paige Bueckers and Hailey Van Lith have boldly called out racism and injustice when they see it, even in the midst of busy and stressful times in their careers. 

In 2021, when Bueckers was poised to become the face of women’s basketball before injuries delayed her ascent, she won the ESPY for female college athlete of the year as a freshman. And she expertly used her ESPYs speech to highlight racial bias in women’s basketball coverage and advocate for Black women in the game.

“With the light that I have now, as a white woman who leads a Black-led sport and is celebrated here, I want to show a light on Black women. They don’t get the media coverage that they deserve,” Bueckers said in 2021. “They’ve given so much to this sport and the community and society as a whole and their value is undeniable. In the WNBA last season, the postseason awards, 80 percent of the winners were Black, but they got half the amount of coverage as the white athletes.”

Similarly, this past season, which was arguably the worst of Hailey Van Lith’s college career, she still actively spoke out against racism levied at her LSU teammates, which the LA Times labeled as the “dirty debutantes” to Iowa’s “milk and cookies” ahead of their Final Four matchup.

“We do have a lot of Black women on this team, and unfortunately, that bias does exist still today, and a lot of the people that are making those comments are being racist towards my teammates,” Van Lith said after the article was published. “I’m in a unique situation where I see with myself, I’ll talk trash and I’ll get a different reaction than if Angel [Reese] talks trash. I have a duty to my teammates to have their back. Some of the words that were used in that article were very sad and upsetting.

The key difference between Clark’s response to similar discourse is that, while Bueckers and Van Lith were pointed in their answers, Clark seemed to choose the least upsetting option to remain neutral and stay out of it completely. 

The pressure, weight, and expectations of Caitlin Clark are unlike those that perhaps any other athlete has ever seen. And it’s only the beginning. For now, Clark is embracing her privilege and right to stick to basketball. Yes, she can certainly be more politically aware and she’s under a huge amount of pressure and stress. Both can be true and there’s always room to grow.

But in doing so, just a few months into her WNBA career, Caitlin Clark finds herself in the middle of a culture war tug-of-war. On one side, she faces internal criticism and skepticism from her WNBA peers for not being stronger in speaking out against toxic actors who seek to use her presence to tear down others. On the other side, she faces being weaponized by those that seek to use her talent on the floor and her identity to further their own political and cultural agendas. 

As the furor around her shows no sign of slowing down, will she be able to navigate what lies ahead?

About Katie Lever

Dr. Katie Lever is a former Division 1 athlete and current freelance sports writer whose work has appeared in Global Sport Matters, Sportico, Extra Points, Forbes, and other outlets. She is also the award-winning author of Surviving the Second Tier, a dystopian novel about the dark side of the college sports industry, available on Amazon. Follow Katie on Twitter and Instagram: @leverfever.