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Is Caitlin Clark treated ‘harshly’ or is the WNBA tough?

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WNBA rookie Caitlin Clark, the women’s basketball phenom who has taken the world by storm, created a sea of orange at a Washington arena on Friday night.
The city’s residents and locals from nearby communities in Maryland and Virginia appeared much more keen to don Clark’s orange Indiana Fever jersey when seeing the star athlete play in the US capital on Friday, rather than wear the red and blue of the hometown Washington Mystics.
And when announcers read Clark’s name before the start of the game – which the Fever went on to win in a nailbiter – the crowd roared in support of the basketball star.
“I’m technically a Wizards fan,” said 26-year-old Maryland resident Briana Florez, referring to the local NBA basketball team, “and a Washington fan in general – but tonight, we’re Caitlin Clark fans.”
The cheers of approval of Clark that rocked the arena in Washington on Friday came after a week of speculation and debate about her treatment in games since she entered the league in March.
The much-anticipated prospect has faced tough defensive coverage and strong challenges from fellow players in the months she’s been dribbling on a WNBA court.
Many of Clark’s supporters have pointed to a few especially bruising moves that she has faced, but most noted a foul that was replayed on sports shows for the past week and sparked the nationwide conversation in the US about the player’s tough treatment.
During a game last Saturday, Chicago Sky guard Chennedy Carter gave Clark a sharp shoulder-check that caused the rookie to fall over and spill onto the ground.
New fans and analysts – many of whom are giving the WNBA a closer look now that it is seeing a sharp rise in popularity – called foul over the past week, but longtime women’s basketball viewers said that these were overreactions.

“I’m just taken aback that the new fans are so shocked,” said Candace Buckner, a sports columnist with the Washington Post who regularly writes about women’s basketball.
“It’s a contact sport,” she added. “It’s almost as if you were a new opera fan and you were surprised there was music.”
Fans at the game in Washington on Friday gave a mixed response after a week of heated coverage. Some said Clark was receiving an unnecessarily tough welcome to a sharp-elbowed league, while others said she was simply being closely guarded due to her talent.
“I think she is treated a little bit harshly,” said Susan Abed, a 63-year-old business owner who came to Washington from her home in Virginia to watch Clark play. “I mean, I think a lot of players probably are jealous because of the money she’s making.”
Ashley See, a 38-year-old librarian, said that “you’re gonna get hit. It’s just the nature of the sport”.
“It’s not a full contact sport, so nobody’s expecting you’re going to get, like, laid out,” she added. “But, you know, I think a little bit of contact is normal.”
Carter’s shove that caused Clark to take a spill was ultimately upgraded to a flagrant foul by the league, after it received intense media scrutiny and public criticism.
Fever coach Christie Sides called Carter’s foul “unacceptable”, and said the team had sent the league a collection of plays – in which they allege Clark had been inappropriately treated – for review.
“It’s tough to keep getting hammered the way she does and to not get rewarded with free throws or foul calls,” Sides said last week.

Fans at the Fevers-Mystics game on Friday noted that the league and its players have to respect and appreciate the woman who has brought new life to the WNBA – a sports league that has struggled for years to develop a strong audience.
“At the end of the day, they’re all WNBA players, they’re all in the same league and whatever’s good for one person in the league is probably good for a lot of people in the league,” Ms See said. “There are chances for more players to get the spotlight and she’s just sort of the trailblazer.”
Clark drew massive crowds to Iowa City – a secluded community of 75,000 in the middle of farm country – when she played at the University of Iowa. In college, she established herself as a once-in-a-generation phenomenon, and a player that people have to watch.
Once she was drafted as the first overall pick by the Indiana Fever in April, her incandescent star power carried that flock of new fans to the WNBA – a professional league that has struggled to maintain a strong fandom. Last year, WNBA teams saw an average of 6,615 fans in attendance at their games.
Clark’s new team already surpassed its total home attendance of the entire 2023 season after just five games. With Clark’s fans fuelling the league’s meteoric growth, the Fever have seen an average of 15,886 fans across their first 11 games, both home and away.
Interest in Friday’s game in Washington was so high that it was moved from the 4,200-seat Entertainment & Sports Arena in the southern reaches of the city to the Capital One Arena. The 20,300-seat home of the NBA’s Washington Wizards is right in the heart of the US capital, and it was a sold-out game.
Melissa Isaacson, a sportswriter and professor at Northwestern University, told the BBC that insiders and people in general do need “to appreciate what Clark’s brought in terms of, at a minimum level, eyes to the game”.

And perhaps that appreciation for her play is why she is facing such a hard-nosed reception. Insiders warned that she should prepare for a different level of play as a professional, particularly as people recognise her skill.
“Reality is coming,” said WNBA legend Diana Taurasi during Clark’s final college tournament.
“You look superhuman playing against some 18-year-olds, but you’re going to come play with some grown women that have been playing professional basketball for a long time.”
Clark is undoubtedly seeing tough coverage on the court, which continues to illustrate that others in the league view her as an offensive threat.
Michael Jordan, pundits have pointed out, was often pushed around, especially in his rookie year. The Detroit Pistons even developed the now-infamous “Jordan Rules” – a plan for intense physical defence to combat Jordan’s otherworldly talent.
It would surprise few if that harsh defensive play or the exhausting clip at which Clark is playing takes some slight physical toll.
She has played the most minutes of all WNBA rookies, and her start in the league has come almost immediately after she played a gruelling season of college basketball that ended in the NCAA championship final.
Perhaps that explains why the player with the all-time scoring record in college basketball history has not been winning – or scoring – all that much so far. The Fever is currently ranked 10th in a league of 12, with a 3-9 record after the win on Friday.
Clark had the worst game of her brief career the day after last week’s shoulder-check from Carter. She scored just three points against the New York Liberty, a game that she was eventually pulled from and the Fever would go on to lose 104-68.
“Caitlin is a star,” Ms Buckner said. “I just hope they [her fans] realise the WNBA didn’t get created three months ago so Caitlin Clark had somewhere to play.”
Friday’s game in Washington proved to be a much-needed bounce back, as Clark scored 30 points and led her team in minutes played.
Clark may not be performing at the heights some have come to expect, but she is still managing to hold her own in a new and more difficult league.
“She’s been unbelievable,” Ms Isaacson said. “No other rookie has come in like she has.”
And when it comes to all the discourse about her WNBA debut and her reception by fellow players, Clark has stayed fairly quiet.
“It is what it is,” she said about the shoulder-check that drew so much attention. It’s a physical game.”

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