WNBA's Clark-Carter brouhaha was bound to happen

At a certain point, with all the tinder lying about, a spark was bound to set fire.

Chennedy Carter was the flint. Caitlin Clark was the stone. And days later, the landscape is still raging with ever-growing flames.

It’s true that Carter’s shoulder check on Clark was not a basketball play. It’s also true that type of competitive physicality happens in basketball, and especially in the WNBA, quite a bit. If things were different, if history were more kind to women’s athletic and professional endeavors, it could have stayed a moment in the season’s timeline. A video to put in the bucket for a rivalry feature.

Instead, it gave fuel to the growing discourse around Clark and the WNBA. The same way leaders have described the rising tide in women’s basketball that resulted in another sold-out crowd watching Clark’s Indiana Fever defeat Carter’s Chicago Sky on Saturday afternoon, the play in question prompted the collision of too many atoms that were already active.

Clark is almost undeniably the most well-known name to enter the 28-year-old WNBA. There have been plenty of other superstars, but none were able to come into the league already in national TV commercials and on window stickers at the grocery store. Only the inaugural 1996 players — Sheryl Swoopes, Rebecca Lobo, Lisa Leslie, Cynthia Cooper, etc. — might come close. Because of that, many people are watching the WNBA for the first time. There are media personalities talking about it for the first time, and their takes aren’t always rooted in historical knowledge. Players are faced with media coverage and criticism they’ve rarely received at this level.

INDIANAPOLIS, INDIANA - JUNE 01: Aliyah Boston #7 and Caitlin Clark #22 of the Indiana Fever celebrate after defeating the Chicago Sky in the game at Gainbridge Fieldhouse on June 01, 2024 in Indianapolis, Indiana. NOTE TO USER: User expressly acknowledges and agrees that, by downloading and or using this photograph, User is consenting to the terms and conditions of the Getty Images License Agreement. (Photo by Andy Lyons/Getty Images)INDIANAPOLIS, INDIANA - JUNE 01: Aliyah Boston #7 and Caitlin Clark #22 of the Indiana Fever celebrate after defeating the Chicago Sky in the game at Gainbridge Fieldhouse on June 01, 2024 in Indianapolis, Indiana. NOTE TO USER: User expressly acknowledges and agrees that, by downloading and or using this photograph, User is consenting to the terms and conditions of the Getty Images License Agreement. (Photo by Andy Lyons/Getty Images)

Carter’s shoulder check was cheap, even within the accepted reality of physical W basketball. It was clear it wasn’t a basketball play, nor was it necessary. Referees often go to the monitors to review for possible upgrades on lesser, more incidental acts, and befuddling technical calls could be considered a WNBA hallmark. The flagrant should have been assessed for “unnecessary contact,” and we should have all moved on.

Before Saturday’s game, three players received fouls that were upgraded during in-game reviews. Mercury guard Kahleah Copper received a flagrant 1 on opening night when her shooting hand came down on Kelsey Plum’s face. Sparks guard Aari McDonald’s foul on Clark was upgraded to a flagrant 1 for a “reckless closeout” while defending a deep transition 3-pointer. Alyssa Thomas drew the previously most high-profile flagrant this season when she threw Angel Reese to the ground on a rebound opportunity and was ejected with a flagrant 2.

That Clark’s most recent incident wasn’t reviewed nor upgraded in the moment as it clearly should have been set the initial spark. Even in the hours after the incident, fans and personalities on social media continued to insist it wasn’t a big deal because the play, in fact, was called a technical. Add in the TV angle and slo-mo replays making the hit look worse with Carter yelling something at Clark as she hit her, and Angel Reese jumping up in celebration on the bench, and we had all the ingredients of a good, old-fashioned disagreement.

Clark followed up a grueling college schedule with 11 games in 20 days for the Fever. That’s about one-third of a collegiate season crammed into three weeks, and she’s the No. 1 target in defensive game plans for the league’s best teams. A lot of the physicality she’s facing is part of the game and part of being a star rookie by whom veterans don’t want to get embarrassed. Clark herself has said repeatedly she understands the nature of the league, and with a full offseason, she’ll have time to bulk up and compete better just as guards Sabrina Ionescu and Kelsey Plum have done in recent years. She doesn’t need anyone to protect her from that reality. She’s an actual fan of the game, having grown up attending Minnesota Lynx games with her dad during their dynasty run. She knows.

Other stuff, like that hit from Carter, is borderline and shouldn’t be let go without repercussion. And while on paper that meant merely one more free throw and the ball for the Fever, in reality, a stronger message should have been sent that that type of play won’t be tolerated.

“Physical play, intensity and a competitive spirit are hallmarks of Chicago Sky basketball,” Sky head coach Teresa Weatherspoon said in a statement Monday. “Chennedy got caught up in the heat of the moment in an effort to win the game. She and I have discussed what happened and that it was not appropriate, nor is it what we do or who we are.”

Weatherspoon is right. Sports are a competitive atmosphere and the emotions can get away from a player. Why the Hall of Fame player didn’t say anything regarding the play after the game other than her blunt “all they’re doing is competing” only dropped more brush on the fire.

Weatherspoon cut off postgame media questions directed to Carter that offered the player an opportunity to explain the incident in her own words. In the Fever’s room down the hall, Clark took the high road in answering multiple questions about the interaction and didn’t place blame on anyone. “It is what it is,” she said a few times. She sits for 10-15 minutes at a time, three times a day on game days, of which she’s already had 11 to the Sky’s seven, and answers easy, tough and sometimes repetitive questions. Fans see that and react to it.

Meanwhile Reese, one-half of the headlining rookie duo alongside Clark, declined Saturday to speak with the media. That lit anew the charred branch of media access and player accountability in a league known to ask for more coverage. WNBA media protocol requires teams to make two players and a head coach available in a news conference after a maximum 10-minute cooling off period. Every other healthy player is required to be made available should they be requested by a media member via written or verbal communication. The arrangement was agreed upon by the WNBA Players Association and league to replace open locker room access that was closed ahead of the 2023 season.

Multiple media members requested to speak with Reese on Saturday. It doesn’t help that the Sky franchise has a history of not abiding by the rules and often makes access to players difficult. The WNBA fined Reese and the franchise, as it has done with the 2023 Finals runner-up Liberty and 2021 runner-up Mercury.

In the absence of context from the players themselves, the controversy spread further. It opened up room for people, some of whom have never watched women’s basketball but saw a clip on their social-media timeline, to fill in their own assumptions and misguided claims about intent.

Carter’s only significant postgame comment — “I ain’t answering no Caitlin Clark questions” — just added to it all. And she kept her feet away from the heat, because while she might not have wanted to answer questions about Clark, she clearly had things to say about the star rookie. She shut off replies and bounced wherever she wanted on social media after the game.

Carter, a 2020 lottery pick who has a rocky history in the league, can talk whatever trash she wants. Anyone who has followed Clark, a well-known talker, to the WNBA should appreciate that. But if you’re going to talk trash, stand on it when it matters.

Cheap shot aside, though, the league could use the beef. It used to market itself as the “144,” a nod to the number of roster spots. It now wants to lean into rivalries and marketing superstars, because that’s how sports work. More people saw Carter’s dustup with Clark live because they tuned in to see Clark, Reese and Kamilla Cardoso. The number of people who are now eyeing the Sky-Fever rematch is growing.

Years of flagrant fouls predated Carter’s and drew significantly less attention. An iconic clip of Diana Taurasi bumping Seimone Augustus and giving her a peck on the cheek in the 2013 playoffs made the rounds this weekend as an example of W drama. Taurasi was issued a technical. They each answered to it in postgame media availability (again, iconic).

Yet, that was a different time on a smaller platform. The game is growing now, and the players need to grow along with it.

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