Caitlin Clark will either push the WNBA past barriers or lay them bare

The day before Caitlin Clark achieved her latest record, a $28 million sneaker signing deal with Nike, the professional basketball union she is about to join released a statement on Instagram:

Endorsements are NOT a WNBA salary.

It was a reminder from the WNBPA that, to borrow a phrase from the now bad and boujee Tony Kornheiser (who pointed out a few years ago that we are in a golden age for sportswriters but not necessarily for sports writing), we have entered a golden age for A basketball player, but not for professional women’s basketball. Or even women’s college basketball.

It’s Clark, and Clark alone, who is all the rage.

As further proof, the Washington Mystics announced Tuesday that their June 7 home game against the Indiana Fever, who drafted Clark No. 1 overall last week, was sold out in three hours. After that, the game was moved from the Mystics’ 4,200-seat entertainment and sports arena across the Anacostia to the Wizards’ 20,356-seat Capital One Arena in the heart of the downtown. The Mystics were the second WNBA team to move a home date with Clark’s Fever to a larger venue. All this after three NCAA tournament games Clark played this season set viewership records for the sport.

Meanwhile, the Mystics have not announced they will do the same when they are scheduled to host the Phoenix Mercury in July, whose roster includes two of the most famous basketball players in the world, Brittney Griner and Diana Taurasi. There is no need. The duo cannot sell the ESA.

Of course, unless you’ve lived on Bouvet Island for the last year, you know the myriad reasons for the Clark phenomenon. She introduced basketball’s most recent revolution, the deep three-point shot, to women’s football. Her signature shot is called the Logo 3, as she often shoots from the edge of any half-court piece of art. And she does it with such remarkable precision that she has scaled the college scoring mountain — almost to its peak where a lower division player, Pearl Moore, planted her flag nearly half a century ago . But a misogynistic NCAA didn’t recognize women’s sports then, which left most of us in the dark about Moore’s accomplishments until Clark’s accomplishments came to light last season.

Clark’s leap into the national mainstream was truly launched with the 2023 NCAA title game. Before that, she wasn’t selling out theaters or generating record television audiences. But after the showdown with LSU star Angel Reese, Clark became a bankable star, which isn’t surprising considering the historic run has always played out in sports in this country when it comes to popularity or villainy.

For there was Clark, an austere representative of the great white values ​​of the Midwest. And there was Reese, from the Baltimore area, who gave us “The Wire” as an example of all that is black urban aesthetic, living up to her adopted and trademark Bayou Barbie moniker, her long flying ponytail and her fashionable false eyelashes fluttering.

And with victory assured in the 2023 title match, Reese turned to Clark and gestured that she was winning a championship ring and Clark was not. Clark was revered for not responding; Reese was vilified. And the perception was not changed even after Internet sleuths discovered that Clark appeared to have made a move similar to that of a previous opponent.

Only neglecting the role of race in sports could lead to downplaying the importance of Clark’s ascendancy, whatever his accomplishments. Indeed, the Great White Hope originated in the early 1900s as a title awarded to any white man who fought to beat Jack Johnson, the first black boxer allowed to fight for the heavyweight championship, which he won. win. Jesse Owens was celebrated for disproving white supremacy, even though America did not access his evidence. Baseball was pleased to have invited Jackie Robinson back into its diamonds. Muhammad Ali was vilified for embracing darkness. Someone called the 1988 Notre Dame-Miami football game Catholics vs. Convicts in reference to the former school’s religious foundation and the latter’s black players, some of whom had been arrested. And before this year’s Clark-Reese rematch, a column celebrating the wholesomeness of UCLA as opposed to the “dirtiness” of LSU was so out of character that the Los Angeles Times apologized for it.

And if it wasn’t the silent part said out loud, maybe the shoe deal Clark just won was. Because she received what is known in the sports sector as a signature shoe. It is reserved for the best, or those who shine so brightly that shoe merchants think they will attract the most customers.

This is an elite group even within the NBA, where of fewer than 600 players who suit up each season, only about 25 have contracts this rich. Their names are familiar and mostly mononymous. Lebron. K.D. Giannis. Steph. Traé. And they all trace their legacy, of course, to Jordan, who remains the most supreme even if he wasn’t the first.

The lineage of women is not that long. And the current list is not that long. Clark joined only three other current players with iconic shoes. They are Breanna Stewart, Elena Delle Donne and Sabrina Ionescu. In the WNBA, a league disproportionately dominated by black women, the only players so revered are white ones.

But good for Caitlin Clark. Hopefully the rest of the league can strap on their Air Clarks, or whatever they’re called, and fly.

Kevin B. Blackistone, an ESPN panelist and professor of practice at the University of Maryland’s Philip Merrill College of Journalism, writes sports commentary for The Post.

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