Caitlin Clark really is the new Larry Bird—when it comes to race and basketball


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For much of the past two years, Caitlin Clark has been the centerpiece of the college basketball world.

Now Clark, like NBA Hall of Famer Larry Bird was 45 years ago, is involuntarily the focus of discussions about race and her transition to professional basketball. Though Clark hasn’t said anything to fuel the Black-white narrative surrounding her meteoric rise, talks about a double standard are being had.

“I think it’s a huge thing. I think a lot of people may say it’s not about Black and white, but to me, it is,” Las Vegas Aces star A’ja Wilson said when asked about the race element in Clark’s popularity and before she recently signed two major endorsement deals. “It really is because you can be top notch at what you are as a Black woman, but yet maybe that’s something that people don’t want to see.

“They don’t see it as marketable, so it doesn’t matter how hard I work. It doesn’t matter what we all do as Black women, we’re still going to be swept underneath the rug. That’s why it boils my blood when people say it’s not about race because it is.”

To be clear, Clark is a skilled hardcourt savant from Iowa. Bird was a skilled hardcourt savant from Indiana State. And like Bird, Clark has captivated audiences and brought unmatched attention to women’s basketball with an ability to score from every corner of the court.

Neither Bird nor Clark were the first great white male or female pro basketball players. Jerry West is the actual NBA logo and before Clark, the long list of talented white WNBA players included Sue Bird and Breanna Stewart.

But sports can be elevated by a heated rivalry, particularly when race is involved.

Clark’s rise has come with an on-court bravado that made her must-watch TV as she led the Hawkeyes to back-to-back NCAA championship game appearances. When Bird led the Sycamores to the title game in 1979, he squared off against Magic Johnson in one of the most-watched games in NCAA tourney history.

At Iowa, Clark’s on-court rival in the NCAA Tournament was former LSU star Angel Reese. Then she took on women’s juggernaut South Carolina and coach Dawn Staley. The matchups created the kind of made-for-social media moments that captivated audiences, regardless of gender.

The matchups also led to ongoing discussions about how race plays a factor in the treatment afforded to Clark, a white woman from “America’s Heartland,” as compared to Black counterparts like Reese.

Clark has said she and Reese are just pieces of a larger movement.

“I would say me and Angel have always been great competitors,” Clark said prior to Iowa’s Elite Eight matchup with Reese and LSU in March. “I think Angel would say the same, like it’s not just us in women’s basketball. That’s not the only competitive thing about where our game is at, and that’s what makes it so good. We need multiple people to be really good.”

Still, the race-based debate over perceived slights to Black players or favoritism toward Clark is not going away as the No. 1 pick in the WNBA draft prepares for her first regular-season game on Tuesday night when Indiana plays Connecticut.

“I think new fans, or maybe returning fans to women’s college basketball, have been drawn in. In part because of Clark. But also, you know, because of the LSU-Iowa rivalry,” said Victoria Jackson, a sports historian and clinical associate professor of history at Arizona State University.

“There are basketball reasons,” Jackson said, “but also there are racial reasons for why Clark has been able to kind of break off into a completely different stratosphere from players that came before her.”

Because of the perceived double-standard, nearly everything involving Clark gets questioned:

— Clark’s first preseason game was streamed, but Reese’s was not.

— Clark gets an endorsement deal. Other established Black stars not so much.

— If Reese talks trash, it’s viewed as unsportsmanlike. If Clark does it, she’s being competitive.

— Reese received some backlash for going to the Met Gala before a game, raising questions would there have been same type of scrutiny if Clark had graced the red carpet.

Wilson, who signed with Gatorade last week and announced Saturday that she is getting a Nike signature shoe, and others have cited how companies are clamoring to be in business with Clark as an example of the disparity in how players are treated.

The deal Clark struck with Nike will reportedly pay her $28 million over eight years — making it the richest sponsorship contract for a women’s basketball player, and it includes a signature shoe. Before Wilson’s announcement Saturday, the only other active players in the WNBA with a signature shoe were Elena Delle Donne, Sabrina Ionescu and Stewart – who are all white.

The perception extends beyond endorsements.

While Clark’s preseason debut was available on the WNBA League Pass streaming app, a post on the X platform from the WNBA incorrectly stated that all games, including the debut of Reese and fellow rookie former South Carolina standout Kamilla Cardoso for the Chicago Sky, would also be available.

So, a fan in attendance at the Sky’s game livestreamed it. It received more than 620,000 views.

In an apology post explaining why the Sky’s game wasn’t also available, the WNBA said Clark’s game was available as part of a limited free preview of its streaming app.

There also have been racial components to how Clark is treated on social media as compared to others, most notably Reese.

Reese, who has previously spoken about the vitriol she received online, was recently attacked again after she missed a preseason practice to attend the Met Gala. Clark also has been the target of online criticism, but apparently not to the extent that Reese has been.

Online hate-speech accounts for approximately 1 percent of all social media posts in the context of sports, according to Daniel Kilvington, course director in Media & Cultural Studies at Leeds Beckett University in Leeds, England.

“Although this might sound quite low, consider how much traffic is online and how many posts are made every single day,” said Kilvington, whose work with the Tackling Online Hate in Football research group has looked at the issue through the sport of soccer. “One percent is therefore 1% too high as athletes are primary targets of hate-speech, harassment and death threats simply for playing a game they love.”

But as Clark’s popularity grows, so will the debate. Jackson believes it’s a good time to openly have discussions about it.

“I don’t know how many times I read and heard her described as generational talent,” the ASU professor said. “And whenever we’re making those cases, I immediately think, well, who are the other generational talents we’ve had? And, I think too often the athletes could be placed in that category who have been Black women have not had that sort of gushing attention. And especially the kind of general public, crossover saturation that Caitlin Clark has had.

“There are overlapping, intersecting reasons for why that is. But, I think we can’t not think about it if the goal here is to have equitable treatment of the athletes in the sport.”


AP Sports Writer Mark Anderson and AP reporter Corey Williams contributed.


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