Great basketball, bad takes and pearl clutching

Maria M. Cornelius2MCsports

The WNBA season is in full swing with television ratings skyrocketing, attendance records being broken, charter flights finally available for players – and new interest in the professional women’s basketball league that while ostensibly welcome is bordering on the absurd in some cases.

First, let’s take a look at the former Lady Vols in the WNBA. Second, we’ll cover the drama which doesn’t involve any Tennessee players.

For Tennessee fans who primarily want to keep up with former Lady Vols, it’s easy this season with two pairs on three WNBA teams. Diamond DeShields and Isabelle Harrison play for the Chicago Sky. Rae Burrell and Rickea Jackson are with the Los Angeles Sparks. Jordan Horston and Mercedes Russell are members of the Seattle Storm.

In a game last week between Los Angeles and Chicago, four Tennessee players were in action and took a photo together afterwards that Harrison posted on social media with orange and blue heart emojis.

Women’s college basketball has surged in popularity, and the hope is that it would cross over into the WNBA. That has already happened. Teams are selling out season tickets, including the defending champion Las Vegas Aces, who also have already sold out all but one home game. Even the April draft as outlined in this column had record viewership on ESPN aided in part by a star-studded draft class.

Two members of that draft class included Angel Reese and Caitlin Clark, and this column in 2023 noted how trash talking by Reese and Clark was part of the game, which also needed better officials. Both of those remain true.

Both Reese and Clark are now in the WNBA, with Chicago and Indiana, respectively, and fans are flocking to see them and the other stars of the league.

Angel Reese and Caitlin Clark (WNBA images)

In a game over the weekend between Chicago and Indiana, the drama escalated. Chicago’s Chennedy Carter took an elbow to the head by Clark – it happens in games and often isn’t intentional – and retaliated when the ball was in-bounded and hip-checked Clark to the ground. The officials inexplicably ruled it a common foul – as noted, the quality is still a major issue – and the WNBA later upgraded it to a flagrant foul. Carter is a competitive player with attitude to spare and a reputation for being physical. Both players were trash talking.

Inexplicably, the Chicago Tribune editorial board decided to use its space for an editorial with the headline: Caitlin Clark’s main ‘privilege’ is one of talent. She must not be allowed to become a target for rule-breakers.

The social post made it even worse by noting that had it happened off the court it would have been assault. It was a hip check. God forbid the Tribune editorial board go to an NHL, football or soccer game. The Tribune was rightly savaged on social media. The editorial board also was oddly silent after Reese was repeatedly fouled in an earlier game without a whistle and then taken down by the neck by Alyssa Thomas, who would be ejected in a clip that can be watched HERE. Reese actually plays for Chicago but not a peep from the editorial board about “rule-breakers” for this rookie.

Chicago Tribune sportswriter Julie Poe posted this on social media about her own company: I cannot overstate the depth of my disappointment in this piece. The editorial board operates completely separately from the sports section. There is no oversight from myself or our staff. This is not a reflection of how we will cover the Sky.

Shakeia Taylor, a deputy senior content editor at the Chicago Tribune whose work focuses on the intersection of sports and culture, took it forward even more with her column: Referring to the foul as assault is dangerous and extreme rhetoric. Using language that implies criminal activity plays into stereotypes and racial undertones that are pervasive throughout these discussions. Basketball players, including Clark, push and shove all the time. Physical play is a characteristic of the game, and calls for Clark to be handled softly seemingly miss that.

It’s tough to be a rookie in any sport, especially one who enters with so much hype, and the overprotection of Clark by pundits, some newcomers to the WNBA and those just seeking clicks for their various shows essentially know nothing about the league. One pundit wanted the women’s teams to match the names of the NBA team in the same city because it would be easier to remember them. There are just 12 teams in the WNBA. If you can’t remember 12 names, find another career.

Longtime women’s basketball fans are fully aware that rookies can be targeted. The clip below is from Parker’s rookie season when veteran Plenette Pierson tangled with Parker, unleashing a court skirmish.

The Chicago Tribune wasn’t clutching its pearls in 2008 even when the targeted player was Parker, a hometown star from the Windy City.

The head coach of the Sky is Teresa Weatherspoon, a name that is very familiar to longtime women’s basketball fans.

“She was the ’Spoon that stirred Tech,” Pat Summitt said when Weatherspoon was inducted into the Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Fame.

Weatherspoon played at Louisiana Tech when the program was a juggernaut and was a fierce competitor who went on to stellar professional career, including WNBA Defensive Player of the Year and five-time All-Star. She understands what happens at the highest level of competition.

Weatherspoon issued this statement about Carter: “She and I have discussed what happened and that it was not appropriate, nor is it what we do or who we are. Chennedy understands that there are better ways to handle situations on the court, and she will learn from this, as we all will.”

Clark, a college sensation at Iowa, has drawn record crowds at Indiana Fever games. The league finally decided to pay for charter flights for teams – something it said for years it couldn’t afford – both for player safety and well-being. For years the summer headlines were full of WNBA teams stranded at airports for hours, even overnight, amid the heavy travel season. Very tall women had to squeeze into coach seats amid the cattle call of boarding a plane. It should not be the travel standard of any professional team.

Is that part of the Clark effect? Yes. Is it fair to say players well before Clark deserved the same treatment and the money should have been found years ago? Yes.

Chiney Ogwumike,  former WNBA player and star at Stanford, is now a broadcaster. Listen to every word of her take in the clip below. She doesn’t excuse what Carter did; she also points out it happens to players besides Clark and it’s long been a part of sports.

That brings us to the final question. The WNBA primarily comprises Black players whose success and work has sustained the league since 1997 and kept the door open for new waves of college stars. Clark is white and became the first player with a multimillion dollar shoe deal from Nike. Suddenly, charter planes can be found. Criticism or targeting of Clark has led to players being told by fans and pundits to be grateful for her.

Ironically, in their attempt to protect Clark they have made her a bigger target. Even more ironically, Clark doesn’t need the protection. She gives as good as she gets, she’s racking up technical fouls for jawing with the officials, she has plenty to say on the court – and she’s damn good. Quit treating her as if she’s a fragile doll.

Sportswriter Lindsey Gibbs writes a lot about the intersection of women’s sports and culture. Her latest is titled: Women in sports are done being grateful. Here’s a snippet:

There have been about 20 conversations happening at once, but there’s a damning undercurrent through all of them: Why aren’t these women – especially these Black women – being more grateful? Why isn’t Chennedy Carter more grateful to Caitlin Clark? Why isn’t Monica McNutt more grateful for Stephen A. Smith allowing her permission to be on First Take? Why aren’t WNBA fans more grateful that the sport is getting increased attention?

Well, I have bad news for anyone waiting for thank-you notes: They’re not coming.

It can be read in its entirety HERE and expands on the wretched segment by First Take.

Too many pundits are being click opportunists with a condescending and patronizing approach to women. Provide better coverage or go back to not being interested in women’s sports. We grew the sport without you, and you won’t be missed.

Maria M. Cornelius started her journalism career at the Knoxville News Sentinel and began writing about the Lady Vols in 1998. In 2016, she published her first book, “The Final Season: The Perseverance of Pat Summitt,” through The University of Tennessee Press.


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