Caitlin Clark is no princess in a tower. Every hit is a strange compliment

<img class="caas-img has-preview" alt="Caitlin Clark has been on the receiving end of some hard fouls in her rookie season in the WNBA. Photograph: Michael Conroy/AP” src=”https://s.yimg.com/ny/api/res/1.2/c4NHNAXOblXI0C6.mz3WYw–/YXBwaWQ9aGlnaGxhbmRlcjt3PTk2MDtoPTU3Ng–/https://media.zenfs.com/en/the_guardian_765/73818870802237dcb71944eda689373c” data-src=”https://s.yimg.com/ny/api/res/1.2/c4NHNAXOblXI0C6.mz3WYw–/YXBwaWQ9aGlnaGxhbmRlcjt3PTk2MDtoPTU3Ng–/https://media.zenfs.com/en/the_guardian_765/73818870802237dcb71944eda689373c”>

On Monday the WNBA named Caitlin Clark its rookie of the month, a sweet reward for the 22-year-old that couldn’t come at a tougher time.

Since entering the league mere weeks ago as the top overall pick, Clark has not only been under pressure due to the outsized expectations that have come with her immense collegiate star status; she’s had to do so while being guarded the length of the floor, running blindly into screens and losing nine of her first 11 games with the Indiana Fever, who have finished last in their conference for the last three seasons. Even though many close WNBA followers expected Clark wouldn’t get by anywhere near as easily as she did at Iowa – not least former top pick Diana Taurasi, who a month ago warned, “reality is coming” – that hasn’t stopped Clark’s legion of fans from taking the slights against her personally and attributing them to a wider league conspiracy to cut down their shiny new meal ticket.

Case in point: a moment late in last Saturday’s game against the Chicago Sky, the much-anticipated rivalry game between Clark and former college nemesis Angel Reese that wound up dominating cable TV ratings. Clark was waiting to receive an inbounds pass when the Sky’s Chennedy Carter shoulder-checked her unawares, dropping the rookie like a bag of onions. Carter refused questions about the play after the game and Reese skipped out on her mandatory news conference in solidarity, resulting in four-figure fines for Reese and her team. That was enough to turn the already rickety discourse around Clark into a prickly, nonsensical pile.

Related: Caitlin Clark’s toxic cultists are ruining things for the WNBA’s longtime fans

The panel on ESPN’s First Take, a graveyard for nuanced sports conversation, spent 40 uninterrupted minutes arguing whether there is a vendetta against Clark; that’s Dallas Cowboys-level outrage manufacture. In the very next ESPN show, Pat McAfee opened with a passionate defense of Clark that boiled over with him calling her a “white bitch who is a superstar”. (He has since apologized.) The golf influencer Paige Spiranac spoke for the bandwagon fan. “Imagine bringing millions of new fans to the game, which in turn will make every player more money, and yet they treat you like this,” she wrote over a clip of the foul that’s been viewed more than 5m times.

On Monday, the editorial board of the Chicago Tribune – hometown paper for the other team, mind you – called Carter’s foul on Clark egregious. “Outside of a sporting contest,” read the op-ed, “it would have been seen as an assault.” And this is weeks after Charles Barkley, Austin Rivers and other NBA luminaries were pleading with W players to cut Clark some slack.

“It’s supposed to be like WWE,” said former NBA All-Star turned podcaster Jeff Teague. “Y’all supposed to play hard against her, but let her kill. Because if she starts having bad games and it doesn’t look like it’s supposed to look, it’s gonna bring them [the league] back down to reality.”

Here’s the actual reality, the reality Taurasi was dismissed as a bitter old crone for raising in the first place: young players (not exclusively rookies) in all manner of sports go through an initiation process. It’s just that, as Michael Harriot rightly points out: “Whenever someone is expected to dominate their sport, teams and players often use a common strategy: ‘What if we beat them up?’”

The NBA had the Jordan Rules and Hack-a-Shaq. The NFL made all kinds of amendments to its rulebook to protect Tom Brady and Peyton Manning from excessive hits. And then of course there was the unrelenting hell Jackie Robinson suffered while integrating baseball in 1947. “When he came to the plate, they knocked him down continuously,” says Negro Leagues Museum president Bob Kendrick. “When he was sliding into second base, he oftentimes came up wet where the opposition had spit on him. When the opposition slid into second base, they came up with spikes high trying to cut him. They did everything imaginable to break Jackie, but Jackie would not break.”

Stars continue to get harsh treatment in other leagues today. Reigning MVP Connor McDavid led the NHL last season in penalties drawn. Suffice to say, if Clark were playing a man’s game, we wouldn’t question the overly aggressive defensive tactics because many fans, wrongly, can’t fathom female athletes being just as mean as their male counterparts. We’d give those tactics a cute name: the Clark Codes.

“I remember Richard Dent slammed me into the turf on to my left shoulder,” former Pro Bowl quarterback Jake Plummer told me, recalling his 1997 NFL debut at Philadelphia. “He was like, “Take that, you rookie! You’re too small for the league!’ I jumped up and said, You’re too old! You need to retire!’” Anyone familiar with Dent’s Hall of Fame career and heyday with the ’85 Bears will see Plummer’s comeback for what it was: a death wish.

Harriot’s analysis goes on. He also considers the NBA rookies who have attempted the most free throws over the course of a single season, a list replete with Hall of Famers (Jordan, Shaq) and top draft picks. (Ray Felix, who made history in 1953 as the NBA’s first Black No 1 draft pick, was fouled more times his rookie season than all but three players in league history.)

The WNBA’s version of that same rookie list (average free throws per game) is no different, a who’s who of Hall of Famers (Cynthia Cooper, Tamika Catchings), league MVPs (Taurasi, A’ja Wilson) and r2008 rookie of the year Candace Parker – the focus in the biggest Detroit hoops brawl since 2004’s Malice at the Palace. Also on that list, not for nothing, is Chennedy Carter – a feisty scorer who had been on a downward trajectory since her rookie breakout in 2020. Disgruntled with multiple suspensions and benchings in 2022, Carter had been out of the league until Sky coach Teresa Weatherspoon called her number. It just goes to show how hard it is for young players to hang around the league where pay is precious, roster spots aren’t guaranteed and the competition is withering.

Really, Carter isn’t that different from Clark, who was guilty of her fair share of bullying in college. Clark has been no less confrontational in the pros and doesn’t hesitate to complain to officials when she doesn’t get her way either. As of Tuesday, Clark had been whistled for 32 personal fouls (fourth-most in the league) and involved in 78 foul calls overall (more than any player) while attempting the second-most free throws a game among rookies this season. Still: it says something that Reese, the only member of the 2024 draft class who cracks the all-time top 20 in average rookie free-throw attempts, is just ahead of Clark.

Reese also entered the league to dizzying hype and has been subject to as much rough play as Clark, if not rougher. In a game against the Connecticut Sun last month, Reese jumped for a rebound when the Sun’s Alyssa Thomas took Reese by the neck and ripped her to the floor, prompting Thomas’s ejection. Reese played on, didn’t complain or even argue, as many of her fans have, that the refs would be treating her differently if she were white. “It was going to be a tough game,” said Reese, who had actually expressed her admiration for Thomas before tipoff. “That’s what I’m built for. And my teammates had my back throughout the whole game.” Then, like clockwork, Reese was served her first career ejection on Tuesday night against New York – seemingly, for her dismissive reaction to a questionable technical foul call.

Unfortunately for Clark, it does not appear as if she can count on the unquestioned support of her Indiana peers. “I’ve seen a couple of girls smirk when she’s got knocked down, half-ass to pick her up,” noted former NBA enforcer Matt Barnes. “Y’all supposed to protect the asset, protect the star. And although this is a team, you always protect your star. You fuck with Kobe, [Chris Paul], Blake [Griffin], the list goes on, it’s going to be a problem.”

What’s more, brutal welcome wagons like the one Clark received from Carter are the stuff the best leagues are made of. People want to see their hero get knocked down and struggle before they soar to dizzying heights. If Clark waltzed into the W and dominated on Day One, the conversation around her wouldn’t be about how great she is; it would be about how great the WNBA isn’t and about how maybe she should have taken that $5m offer from Ice Cube to play in the BIG3.

Clark is no princess locked in a tower. She’s the gladiator storming the castle with a sword in hand. As long as she continues to be her team’s best scoring option, most turnover-prone ball handler and a major defensive liability, she’s going to get what’s coming to her. Every hit is its own strange compliment, a not-so-gentle reminder to do better. So it is decreed in the Clark Codes, the latest amendment to the unwritten rookie initiation rules.

What’s more, she accepts this. “I think at this point I know I’m going to take a couple of hard shots a game and that’s what it is,” Clark said after the Chicago game. “I’m trying not to let it bother me.”

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