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Jemele Hill On The Media Response To Caitlin Clark And The Women’s Basketball Boom

Let’s clarify something from the start: Caitlin Clark is a supernova. When she’s on a basketball court, unprecedented things happen. This season, Clark broke the NCAA Division I records for three-pointers in a season, all-time scoring, women’s all-time scoring, women’s points in a single season, and so on. But records were only there for Clark to break because of the women who existed before her — from pioneers like Cheryl Miller and Lynette Woodard to contemporaries like A’ja Wilson, Kelsey Plum, and Clark’s childhood idol, Maya Moore. Clark is one-of-one, but she is not the only one. She was never the only one.

Behind an over-my-dead-body game from Clark, No. 1 seed Iowa’s 64-54 win over No. 8 West Virginia attracted 4.9 million viewers on ESPN, as per The Athletic, on March 25. The skyrocketing fascination with the women’s game, however, isn’t exclusive to Clark and her Hawkeyes. Women’s March Madness set an all-time tournament record with 292,456 fans attending first- and second-round games, multiplying attendance by nearly five from 2023 (60,799), according to Front Office Sports.

Angel Reese, Flau’jae Johnson, and LSU are the reigning champions, lest we forget, after beating Iowa. South Carolina head coach Dawn Staley had a brand-new starting five this season, and they casually logged a second consecutive undefeated year. USC freshman JuJu Watkins shattered several records, including Miller’s USC single-season scoring record that had stood since 1986. Niele Ivey, who seamlessly replaced Muffet McGraw as head coach at Notre Dame in 2020, has kept the Fighting Irish as one of the top programs in the nation behind Hannah Hidalgo. The fact I’ve gotten this far without mentioning UConn is illustrative enough for the booming state of women’s college basketball, although UConn is always worth noting, especially now that Paige Bueckers is back — like back, back — from an ACL tear.

Every so often, one player captures the zeitgeist and monopolizes the nation’s attention, but multiple players — Clark’s peers — have the power to hold it. To contextualize the Caitlin Clark phenomenon within the ever-changing narrative around women’s basketball, I spoke to Emmy Award-winning journalist Jemele Hill (author of Uphill, contributor to The Atlantic, and host of Jemele Hill Is Unbothered).

Caitlin Clark is under nobody’s shadow at Iowa like she would be at other storied programs like UConn, South Carolina, or Tennessee. Her playing style is electric and easily translates to viral social clips. She’s white. In other words, through no fault of her own, she’s an easy entry point for people to get in on women’s basketball without having to confront conversations inherent to women’s basketball — and all women’s sports. Do you sense the Caitlin Clark fandom is translating to more women’s basketball coverage outside of her orbit?

I do think she is stoking overall curiosity about women’s basketball, and [her fans aren’t just getting] exposed to her style of play. They’re getting exposed to a number of great teams, a great conference in the Big Ten, and other great players. I don’t know if the media coverage is necessarily following that same pattern. I think the media is very centered on centering Caitlin Clark in everything and pouring a huge share of the coverage behind her, which is definitely understandable. Because if she is the lightning bolt that is striking everything, then of course it makes sense to really cover the lightning bolt.

But I think the media is treating it as if there’s just this anomaly that’s come along, and all we have to do is pay attention to an anomaly — and not overall the fact that the sport, before she really began catching the eye of the national public, was gaining a tremendous amount of traction. Everything about this sport has been trending up for years now. It did not just start with Caitlin Clark, but they’re trending it like it did. And so it’s already creating a false narrative that is doing the public a disservice.

If you look at WNBA ratings or women’s college basketball ratings, they have been exploding for at least the last seven to ten years — or I would even say five to seven if you want a shorter window. And so, it’s been proven that people really enjoy the sport. They enjoy the stars in the sport, but they enjoy the sport itself. And I’m not completely convinced that the media understands the difference.

Will Ferrell, Cheryl Miller, Kevin Hart, Saweetie, LeBron, and Kehlani have all been to JuJu Watkins’ USC games as well. But “Travis Scott Flew His Ass All The Way To Iowa To See Caitlin Clark” hits different as a headline than “LA-based Celebrities Attend Basketball Game In Southern California.”

Correct.

Caitlin Clark would have been incredible regardless of where she played because she is an incredible player. But do you think the phenomenon around her would have hit the same anywhere other than Iowa?

I do think her phenomenon has a lot of factors going for it that, say, JuJu Watkins doesn’t. JuJu Watkins is in LA. That’s already a celebrity culture. Celebrities showing up to Juju Watkins’ games is not a big deal because celebrities always show up at sporting events in LA. It’s LA. But there is a Middle America quality that draws in a lot of different people. Iowa doesn’t get to be considered a cool place. It is just not positioned that way.

You know what I compare it to? I think the best comparison is what we just saw happen with Colorado and Deion Sanders. In Boulder, Colorado, it’s barely three Black people there. And as soon as the Deion phenomenon arrived in Colorado, you got all these mega celebrities coming to see Deion Sanders and the Colorado football team. Part of the fascination is not just with Deion and his persona — and the persona that some of his best players have — but you have this idea of culture happening in a place where culture is not supposed to happen.

You probably saw Stanford’s Cameron Brink appear to say “f*ck you” toward a ref or the Iowa State bench. My first thought was, Imagine if Angel Reese did that. And I saw Ohio State’s Cotie McMahon tweeting she’d have a tech “in a heartbeat” if she interacted the same way Caitlin had with a referee in her game against Holy Cross. I love it when any athlete displays raw emotion. I want that uncensored cockiness from women, but I don’t get the sense that is the majority opinion, especially when non-white players are involved. What is your reaction to the disparate perceptions and portrayals?

These differences and what we allow — “allow,” I put in air quotes — from certain athletes versus others very much has everything to do with how we generally perceive race in society. LSU has two villain factors going for them. They have Kim Mulkey, and then they have Angel. For people who love to hate-watch, every time LSU plays is like their Super Bowl. I believe ESPN posted a clip of Angel Reese [baiting] a Middle Tennessee player into a foul, and then she waved goodbye to her when she fouled out — as this girl was crying. The comments were crazy. They are hitting on all the right racial notes when it comes to Angel Reese, whereas it’s a little bit different when you look at what [Brink] did because then it’s like, “Oh, she was very passionate.”

What we feel like athletes are entitled to do is very much tied to and connected to what we think of that particular athlete. And for that matter, what we think of what that athlete represents. We see this all the time with social issues. LeBron James gets told to shut up and dribble, but when Tim Tebow and his mom cut up a Pro-life Super Bowl ad [in 2010], nobody was telling Tim Tebow to shut up and throw a football. There has always, unfortunately, been this undercurrent when it comes to athletes of color. There is this idea that they just need to be happy and stay in their place and only be outspoken in the ways that make the majority feel comfortable. As soon as they don’t do that, they face backlash and criticism. So I think these double standards — people think they wouldn’t exist for female athletes or in women’s sports. They’re just as prevalent as they are in men’s sports.

You have been granted guaranteed access to embed for months with anybody in women’s basketball or women’s sports. Who are you choosing?

Dawn Staley. I mean, Caitlin Clark would be my top three, for sure. But I think I picked Dawn Staley because she is the gold standard, in many ways, in that sport right now. When you look at her own trajectory as a player [and then] as a coach — I mean, what she built at South Carolina is extraordinary. It took her 16 years to build it. When she started off there, nobody ever thought that South Carolina would be in the kind of conversations they’re in now. We see the national championships. The players that she’s putting in the WNBA. No one ever imagined that they would be able to, at least for the last decade, surpass UConn.

To build something from scratch, and then on top of that, be as outspoken as she’s been in supporting other Black women who are coaching in women’s basketball, but also about pay equity. She’s been very vocal about that issue. There are so many layers to Dawn Staley, and for a lot of us who came to love women’s basketball during the time that she played, she represents … even the most misogynistic dude loved Dawn Staley. She’s no-nonsense. I mean, she’s pretty straightforward, but it’s something about her that is enigmatic, charismatic, and obviously, she’s damn good at what she does.

Three years ago, Paige Bueckers used her ESPYs speech to call for more coverage for her Black peers and acknowledge that she’s succeeding in “a Black-led sport.” Do you think we’ve seen an improvement?

I don’t think we have. In part it’s because, overall, the media does a terrible job of covering women’s sports. And then the times when they do decide that women are worthy of their coverage, they’re going to overload in one direction. Because it’s all they know. And I was very, very happy — happy probably is a substandard word — but it was just very encouraging to see Paige Bueckers recognize that, especially given how young she is. That’s not something that necessarily has to be in her social consciousness, but she understands, “Hey, this sport is almost half Black women.”

A study I cited recently for a piece I wrote in The Atlantic [found that] when you compare [the coverage] of, say, someone like Bueckers, Sabrina Ionescu, or Caitlin Clark to A’ja Wilson, who has dominated basketball at every single level. She’s probably the best player in the world right now. And I’m not trying to act like she gets no coverage, but the coverage that sometimes non-white women get, or specifically Black women get, is not even close. It’s two-to-one.

I mean, Aliyah Boston was the best player in college just a couple of years ago. And she did not get even a tenth of this media coverage that Caitlin Clark did. Now, some people would say, “Oh, it’s her game.” But I don’t think it was that. She’s tremendous on television, and I’m thinking, What a missed opportunity for the national media to really elevate who she was as a person. Caitlin Clark seems to be a great personality, but it is not like Caitlin Clark is walking around saying crazy stuff. They’re just covering her excellence, and that’s good enough. Whereas it feels like for Black athletes to get the same amount of coverage or even fair coverage, there has to be something extra [beyond basketball].

Caitlin has handled her outsized fame as well as you could expect from a 20-, 21-, 22-year-old. As her time wraps up as a deified representation of Iowa and college basketball, what would you love to see her do with her WNBA platform?

I would love to see the style that she plays really translate to the next level. And I think it will, by the way. There’s going to be a natural learning curve when she makes the leap to the WNBA. I think the people who don’t watch women’s basketball regularly don’t understand that there are not a lot of roster spots in the WNBA. The person at the end of the bench could legitimately have been averaging 31 in college. Sabrina [Ionescu] struggled, and she was great. Everybody goes through it. A lot of people don’t understand that talent is insane in the WNBA. But I’m hoping that because there is such a fascination with her, because she has created such a staunch fan base, that fan base not just follows her but starts to fall in love with the entirety of the league. And I think that will happen.

To me, Caitlin Clark was always Steph Curry. It was always him. And even if you consider LeBron to be the greatest player of this generation, which would be accurate, the biggest effect on basketball at every level was Steph Curry. I feel like Caitlin Clark’s going to continue that because even the reason she plays, the way she plays, is because of Steph Curry. I can only imagine the number of little girls and young female athletes who are trying to copy everything she’s doing, and I think that’s a great thing for the sport.

It’s not specific to women’s sports for one player to get outsized exposure like Caitlin. We see certain players in any league become media darlings and other great players be semi-anonymous. But if any player could be given the same level of exposure, who do you think has the potential in post-Caitlin Clark college hoops to attract this level of national intrigue?

MiLaysia Fulwiley. Well, if you give me two answers, I’m going to say JuJu and MiLaysia. I actually lean toward Fulwiley more because of style. Style matters when it comes to basketball, and MiLaysia Fulwiley can do things with the basketball I currently have not seen a lot of women able to do. The behind-the-back passes, the no-looks. Her game is rounding out, and she’s just a freshman. It is scary to think about where she’s going to be two years from now.

One of the big components as to why Clark was able to draw so many fans is because she plays the game with flair and confidence. While the confidence part isn’t necessarily unique to the women’s game, I think the flair, the artistry of it, is different. And I see the same thing with Fulwiley. She’s a highlight clip every day. She’s going to do something that’s going to make ESPN’s top-10 plays. I saw it myself in Paris when I went to [South Carolina and Notre Dame’s game], and she did that behind-the-back move, and I was like, “I’ve never seen that.” She’s also got the benefit of the monstrous national platform that South Carolina has built.

I’m hoping something like what happened with South Carolina is also in Iowa’s future because this has got to be more than just about supporting one generational athlete. It’s got to be about supporting the program. Fans have proven that they will support. And so, I hope that after Caitlin Clark is gone, Iowa is able to create an atmosphere where they’re consistently in the conversation for having the best players and the best team in the country.

This interview has been lightly edited for clarity and length.

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