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What do you see when you see this athlete?

You may see a struggling rookie, or you may see the highest scoring rookie of the WNBA this season. Or you may see a revolutionary of the sport. Possibly you see a coddled athlete, privileged in her white skin. Maybe you see a whiner, or a fierce competitor, or even pieces of both.

To me, Caitlin Clark has become the nation’s ink blot, a Rorschach test where everyone sees what they want to, and rarely what is actually there.

In that way, Clark has become a vehicle for each of our preconceived notions and biases. And that sucks. We have turned the best and most fun story in sports into one of the most exhausting and annoying ones.

Another case of “this is why we can’t have nice things.”

Caitlin Clark didn’t have to be anyone’s favorite, but she was undeniably a super fun basketball player to watch during her collegiate career at Iowa. She set countless records, played fearlessly, dropped dimes, and shot lights out. In many of the ways that Steph Curry influenced men’s basketball for the last 15 years, watching Clark shoot from miraculous distances is awesomely entertaining.

Maybe you think she got a lot of favorable calls from the refs along the way. Maybe you think she was cocky. Maybe you had doubts about whether her skillset and slender frame might make it difficult for her to instantly have the same transcendent impact in the WNBA. You’d be right on all counts.

But Clark was also appointment television.

Iowa games were the most highly rated televised basketball games, and the Hawkeyes played to sold out crowds at home and on the road. Some things can be debated, like whether or not Clark is or will be an all-time great. But other things can’t be debated, like how Clark unquestionably created more women’s basketball fans than anyone in the history of the sport.

A tidal wave of interest and new fans have followed Clark into the WNBA, and the result is that the shoreline is starting to look a bit different. First, WNBA Commissioner Engelbert announced that the  players of the WNBA would get to fly charter this season, instead of the idiotic way the league had made them fly commercial for the past 28 years. Clark didn’t spearhead this change; veteran stars of the league have been outspoken on this for years. But also, the change coming in Clark’s rookie season isn’t coincidence either. While TV ratings for the league have been steadily climbing for years, they have never seen anything close to the number of viewers Iowa got last season. With more eyes on the game and a new broadcast deal to negotiate, there will be more money in the game, and charter flights were finally deemed financially feasible to the league’s decision-makers.

Clark has never asked for credit for this, but that doesn’t stop her from receiving it from new fans and viewers.

It’s understandably frustrating for the women who came before her, who have suffered in the coach middle seat and put in the work to push for these important changes. And it’s also frustrating for Clark, who now has the ire of those who came before her and advocated for these things, and who want their legacy and impact appropriately noted. She can’t help their feeling that way, nor can she help it when fans assign her credit.

I have heard many basketball experts tell me that her fellow players hate Clark. And I have heard many basketball experts tell me that the players do not hate Clark—that those first experts are wrong, uneducated, and making assumptions. The first set of experts often ask why the players aren’t more thankful to Clark who helped get them chartered flights, and the future payday coming to the league in the next couple years. Obviously, no one needs to thank Clark, who is not asking and has never asked for gratitude.

But those talking heads, who have called the other WNBA players petty and ungrateful, are setting in motion even more antagonism for Clark, who is merely a bystander.

It was Clark who was a bystander when she was body-checked by Chennedy Carter Saturday, a dirty foul that is unquestionably not a basketball play but an act of unnecessary vitriol. Another example where my eyes tell me at least some of her opponents sure aren’t thrilled with her. Maybe the unsportsmanlike play stems from an actual dislike of her, but it’s also possible that it’s the product of being told they owe Clark gratitude or appreciation.

(Meanwhile, it was Angel Reese—a Caitlin Clark foil from years of incredible competitive games between the two stars—who, this week, asked for recognition in bringing the game to such a publicly beloved level.)

Every time Caitlin Clark wears another new hard foul or non-basketball act, and the world dissects the clip—who celebrated it, who didn’t stand up for her, how much coverage did it get compared to another player—and new life is bred into a self-fulfilling controversy.

So here we are. The most fun thing in sports months ago—watching Caitlin Clark hoop—has been reset, and ruined. Maybe we’ll one day get back to talking about the Caitlin Clark on the court and not the court of public opinion, a landscape that makes everyone into losers, and drags the sport down with it. We can break the cycle if we just shut up and let these ladies ball.

Josh Bard

Josh Bard is a guy. A sports guy, an ideas guy, a wise guy, a funny guy, a Boston guy, and sometimes THAT guy. Never been a Guy Fieri guy, though.

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