Posted on May 15, 2024

Caitlin Clark, Much Like Larry Bird, the Focus of Talks About Race and Double Standards in Sports

Kyle Hightower, Associated Press, May 12, 2024

For much of the past two years, Caitlin Clark has been the centerpiece of the college basketball world.

Now Clark, like NBA Hall of Famer Larry Bird was 45 years ago, is involuntarily the focus of discussions about race and her transition to professional basketball. Though Clark hasn’t said anything to fuel the Black-white narrative surrounding her meteoric rise, talks about a double standard are being had.

“I think it’s a huge thing. I think a lot of people may say it’s not about Black and white, but to me, it is,” Las Vegas Aces star A’ja Wilson said when asked about the race element in Clark’s popularity and before she recently signed two major endorsement deals. “It really is because you can be top notch at what you are as a Black woman, but yet maybe that’s something that people don’t want to see.

“They don’t see it as marketable, so it doesn’t matter how hard I work. It doesn’t matter what we all do as Black women, we’re still going to be swept underneath the rug. That’s why it boils my blood when people say it’s not about race because it is.”

To be clear, Clark is a skilled hardcourt savant from Iowa. Bird was a skilled hardcourt savant from Indiana State. And like Bird, Clark has captivated audiences and brought unmatched attention to women’s basketball with an ability to score from every corner of the court.

Neither Bird nor Clark were the first great white male or female pro basketball players. Jerry West is the actual NBA logo and before Clark, the long list of talented white WNBA players included Sue Bird and Breanna Stewart.

But sports can be elevated by a heated rivalry, particularly when race is involved.

Clark’s rise has come with an on-court bravado that made her must-watch TV as she led the Hawkeyes to back-to-back NCAA championship game appearances. When Bird led the Sycamores to the title game in 1979, he squared off against Magic Johnson in one of the most-watched games in NCAA tourney history.

At Iowa, Clark’s on-court rival in the NCAA Tournament was former LSU star Angel Reese. Then she took on women’s juggernaut South Carolina and coach Dawn Staley. The matchups created the kind of made-for-social media moments that captivated audiences, regardless of gender.

The matchups also led to ongoing discussions about how race plays a factor in the treatment afforded to Clark, a white woman from “America’s Heartland,” as compared to Black counterparts like Reese.


Still, the race-based debate over perceived slights to Black players or favoritism toward Clark is not going away as the No. 1 pick in the WNBA draft prepares for her first regular-season game on Tuesday night when Indiana plays Connecticut.

“I think new fans, or maybe returning fans to women’s college basketball, have been drawn in. In part because of Clark. But also, you know, because of the LSU-Iowa rivalry,” said Victoria Jackson, a sports historian and clinical associate professor of history at Arizona State University.

“There are basketball reasons,” Jackson said, “but also there are racial reasons for why Clark has been able to kind of break off into a completely different stratosphere from players that came before her.”