Who Made Caitlin Clark a Good White Girl?

by Tommy Craggs

Screenshot: Caitlin Clark with teammates Kelsey Mitchell and Temi Fagbenle in a May 2024 game against the Seattle Storm
Screenshot: YouTube

It was something like five years before she was born that the moral panic over Caitlin Clark began. This was 1997, the year the WNBA debuted. The NBA was bleeding from the teeth to lock out its workers. Culture war was in the air, and the country hovered uneasily at sports pundit DEFCON 2. Mike Lupica was doing so much heavy breathing the whole tri-state area could’ve told you what he’d had for lunch on any given day. A racist demonology, never far from any conversation about basketball, was being summoned to the breach between the owners and the players. The NBA had been overrun with greedy thugs, it was felt in certain quarters, and the time had come to bring them to heel. 

And now here came the WNBA, the respectable alternative, “the good apple in the increasingly rotting barrel of professional sports,” as Newsweek put it. This was real basketball, uncorrupted by all that blinged-out commerce, dedicated to “fundamental” play. A year earlier, John Wooden, the former UCLA coach, had declared the women’s game the “best pure basketball” around, decrying the “showmanship” of the men’s game and calling as he often did for a ban on dunking, as if there were something shameful about watching people fly. Lest you imagine this sort of sniffing was restricted to tedious old Rotarian cranks, even Ann Meyers, a real hooper’s hooper in her day, was singing from the same hymnal:

The women’s edge is they do the fundamentals. It’s a great game. The men’s game has gotten out of hand a little bit. They carry the ball, they travel. They’ve gotten away from fundamentals. The taunting, the fights, the trash talking. I don’t think there's any place for it in the game.

Thus was the WNBA sold by the NBA's own marketers. It would be everything that Allen Iverson and Kevin Garnett were not—“the anti-NBA,” Newsweek called it. Because WNBA rules required players to be at least 22 years old or to have exhausted their college eligibility, the league would suffer none of “the foolishness and egos of young millionaires just out of high school,” in the magazine’s phrase. Of the foolishness and egos of the old billionaires actually in charge, Newsweek had nothing to say. 

Even back then, there was no mystery about what the new league was up to. The WNBA was seeking to legitimate itself by way of an explicit appeal to respectability—specifically, white, bourgeois respectability. NBA players may have, as The New Republic lamented of Latrell Sprewell, “leapfrogged…middle class values”—oh fucking eat me, Marty Peretz—but the WNBA was here to uphold those values and serve as their faithful custodian. 

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