Can ESPN Please Just Be Normal About Women’s Basketball

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Can ESPN Please Just Be Normal About Women’s Basketball

It’s sports! It’s just freaking sports! You guys talk about men’s sports all day. Just do that, but for women’s sports! Why is this so hard?

If you’re not aware of what caused that outburst, let’s go first to WWE Superstar Pat McAfee who hosts a wildly popular sports daytime talk show on ESPN.

Here’s a general rule for Peyton Manning’s punter: if you’re about to say something about a female athlete that you wouldn’t say about a male one, just don’t do it! (and no Pat, adding “white” to a male wrestler whose tagline is “son of a bitch” does not make it the same thing as calling Caitlin Clark a “white bitch,” plus it still sounded weird shoehorning it in there.)

Next up is Stephen A. Smith telling a woman how much he hates having to tiptoe around his words and not offend people when talking about the WNBA, which produced this incredible exchange where the man with a Guiness World Record in bombast was rendered speechless.

“I’m talking to you about the power that you have.” Monica McNutt you’re a legend for that one.

Stephen A. Smith is the picture of power in sports media, and he is the last person who gets to complain about what narratives are being created. Get your hands out of the dough and then you can complain about the food my dude.

Expanding our view of this outside the narrow ESPN takeverse, Bob Costas is right, there is a racial aspect to the discourse surrounding Caitlin Clark as McAfee buffoonishly proved, but that’s also just sports. They’re one of the last true common grounds that increasingly isolated Americans meet each other on, and all our squabbles inevitably spill out on to the field. Sports have always been political.

That there is a racial bias to the uproar over the cheap shot on Caitlin Clark versus the silence around the flagrant foul on her college rival Angel Reese just proves that women’s basketball has made it to the mainstream. In this wave of sports activism in the Kaepernick era, the WNBA has been the most forceful and impactful of our major sports leagues, so this kind of nonsense is nothing new to them.

What’s new is the spotlight. Caitlin Clark is a superstar, at least in the entertainment sense of that term. She has brought eyeballs to women’s basketball in a way that no one else has, but all she did was accelerate a preexisting trend. Women’s sports, and other less publicized, so-called “niche” leagues like F1 have become big business in recent years as sports consumption diets are changing.

It’s important to understand that there are substantial financial stakes at the base of this unfolding effort by ESPN to pretend they care about something they’ve never cared about until TV viewership forced them to. It’s why a fucking punter is given hours on end to opine about how to play shooting guard in the WNBA, and why ESPN’s biggest personality is still pushing to be the loudest voice in the room on a subject where he “could have been doing this three years ago if [he] wanted to.”

These are their moneymakers and there is money to be made.

The WNBA has existed since 1996. Reggie Miller, who owns the most famous arena in the world and is the greatest Indiana Pacer of all time by a wide margin, isn’t even the greatest basketball player in his household. Cheryl Miller is in three Hall of Fames (Naismith, Women’s, FIBA). She went 132-4 in high school, was the national player of the year her junior and senior years and scored 105 points in a game in 1986 and won two national championships in college, winning three player of the year awards. There is no chance in hell that Reggie could ever have guarded his sister.

The point is that big things have been happening in women’s sports on the national stage for nearly half a century, and there are people like Monica McNutt who have been covering it and talking about it. They’re the ones who should get to speak under the bright lights women’s basketball now finds itself under well before Stephen A. launches into his schtick.

I won’t profess to know who many of those people are, as I am a women’s basketball noob like so many of the millions who tuned in to watch Cailtin Clark ruthlessly give them Kobe memberberries these past two years. Basketball was my first love, and I am a child of the 1990s, so I was aware of Cheryl Miller and Lisa Leslie and Sheryl Swoopes and Dawn Staley growing up, but I would only watch their games in passing. Aside from being awed by Sue Bird and now Sabrina Ionescu, women’s basketball has not commanded much of my sports-viewing attention.

Like so many others, that has now changed as Clark has opened up my sports world and made WNBA and NCAA women’s basketball appointment television just like a mid-week Giannis vs. Embiid NBA game would. I can’t wait to see what Juju Watkins does next year at USC, as she might make the Clark hype look quaint when it’s all said and done. This is a moment that signals a sea change in the broader sports order, and I am begging ESPN to just be normal about it. Maybe even put a muzzle on Pat McAfee and Stephen A. Smith and just let people like Monica McNutt fill us newbies in on what we’ve been missing.

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