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Column: Caitlin Clark can handle the bruises that come with being a WNBA rookie

Indiana Fever guard Caitlin Clark drives against Seattle Storm forward Nneka Ogwumike.
Indiana Fever guard Caitlin Clark, right, drives against Seattle Storm forward Nneka Ogwumike last week.
(Doug McSchooler / Associated Press)
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We knew Caitlin Clark was going to have a slow start to her pro career because the team that drafted her, the Indiana Fever, has not had a winning season since President Obama was in office. Of course, growing pains come with being the No. 1 pick in the draft — regardless of sport.

Opinion Columnist

LZ Granderson

LZ Granderson writes about culture, politics, sports and navigating life in America.

You can also count on those top picks to be tested by veterans, especially physically. It’s a rite of passage for star rookies. Hard fouls are part of the game.

Cheap shots, like the one Chennedy Carter delivered to Clark on an inbound play on Saturday, are not supposed to be part of the game. But they are part of competition. Hence the Rodney Dangerfield joke: “I went to a fight the other night, and a hockey game broke out.”

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For her part, Clark has repeatedly said she’s ready to go through that rite of passage. However, it seems many of her supporters are not.

“It is an absolute outrage what’s happening to Caitlin Clark in the @WNBA,” posted tennis commentator (and former colleague of mine) Patrick McEnroe, without explaining what he thinks is happening to her. Fox Sports analyst Emmanuel Acho posted a video of Carter’s foul on Clark, asking, “Are the women out to get her?”

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One of the more disappointing synopses came from former NBA player Austin Rivers, who accused WNBA players of resenting Clark because of her fame: “If you girls were Destiny’s Child, she would be Beyoncé.”

He also echoed a popular sentiment that hostility toward Clark is rooted in identity politics and that her play alone is why she has so much attention.

“And it’s not because she’s white,” he said about Clark’s popularity and economic importance. “It’s not because she’s straight — good God, no one cares. And it’s not because she’s pretty, another thing I heard some woman who knows nothing about basketball saying…. It’s because she’s an unbelievable basketball player and talent.”

Rivers, whose father is NBA legend Doc Rivers, could have offered his perspective on what it’s like being tested as a rookie with a target on your back because of fame. He also could have addressed why women’s basketball wasn’t more popular before Clark. But that would have taken nuance. So instead he tried to gaslight everyone by suggesting being pretty, straight and white doesn’t help a woman’s Q-rating, which is akin to saying being tall, dark and handsome doesn’t help men.

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Clark has repeatedly said she wants to be treated like everyone else. And that’s how she’s being treated. Why are so many having a difficult time accepting that?

WNBA basketball has always been a physical game. At the very beginning, star rookie Rebecca Lobo had to adjust from college play to the physicality of the professional game. When Candace Parker was a superstar rookie in 2008, she found herself in the middle of a brawl. Angel Reese was hit in the neck mid-jump less than a week before Carter hip-checked Clark. Afterward Reese said: “They’re not supposed to be nice to me or lay down because I’m Angel Reese or ‘cause I’m a rookie.”

The problem began the moment men with very large platforms started making proclamations about Clark’s place in history without respecting the history of the game.

Consider this: In any major sport, someone can be considered a contender for “the greatest of all time” only if they have won a championship. In fact, the conversation typically starts with how many Super Bowls or rings a particular player has.

Not how close they got but how many were captured.

Except with Clark.

Her accomplishments are worthy of all the attention she has attracted, but sports media shoehorned Clark into a GOAT conversation that by the industry’s own metric, she didn’t belong in. They did so because Clark was great in college, and they weren’t watching the sport before her so … she was crowned without context. It’s like a tourist who spends a week at a resort and proclaims to know the local culture better than the people who live there.

And now there is this outcry from casual fans who are shocked to find out the WNBA is a lot tougher than college. Something that wouldn’t have to be explained at all if professional women’s basketball were given the attention it has always deserved.

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Clark doesn’t need protecting. She’s a talented player who’s learning the ropes, not a damsel in distress.

@LZGranderson

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