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I really wanted to sit out of this never-ending conversation about WNBA star rookie Caitlin Clark. But the moment I saw Chicago Sky guard Chennedy Carter body-check Clark in the third quarter of June 1’s national broadcast against the Indiana Fever, I knew a nasty discourse was coming. 

It wouldn’t matter that the WNBA has been a highly competitive league for years. Nor would it matter that Clark has engaged in her fair share of contentious plays in college and now professionally. She’s being painted as a white savior who’s breathing life into a majority Black league that is built and shaped by dynamic and decorated Black women such as Dawn Staley, Lisa Leslie, Sheryl Swoopes, Cynthia Cooper, Candace Parker, Maya Moore and A’ja Wilson. In America, the white woman is seen as worthy of protection from attackers, especially those of color. It was inevitable that the masses were going to muddy the waters with misogynoir during what should be an exciting time of growth for the WNBA.

“Caitlin, how have you tried to compartmentalize the way in which the hard fouls are being tolerated with you right now,” a reporter asked in the post-game interview before pausing to amend his question, “… the targeted fouls?” The Fever beat the Sky in that game by one point.

“I think at this point, I know I’m going to take a couple [of] hard shots a game, and that’s what it is,” Clark responded with her head down. “I’m trying not to let it bother me.” 

Sure enough, come June 3, the infantilizing began. Folks pressured the WNBA to better protect Clark, its shining star who, as former NBA player-turned-analyst Charles Barkley put it, is the reason the W is getting private charters and “bringing all that money and shine to the WNBA.” The league upgraded Carter’s body check of Clark to a flagrant 1 foul after a review, reported The Athletic. In the midst of these coded conversations about Clark’s need for protection, ESPN analyst Monica McNutt expressed that the W shouldn’t baby Clark and schooled Stephen A. Smith on the plight of being a Black woman, especially in sports, in June 3’s episode of “First Take,” which has since gone viral.  

Then the Chicago Tribune Editorial Board chose to enter the chat. I couldn’t sit back any longer.

“The foul committed by Chicago Sky guard Chennedy Carter was egregious. Outside of a sporting contest, it would have been seen as an assault,” the predominately white and male board penned in the hometown newspaper.

I kept rereading the word “assault.” It carries so much weight. It’s etched into the very fabric of America’s policing of Black bodies; speak or act out of turn, and it gives white people the power to put Black people back in their place. The word “assault” in this situation is an extension of centuries-old coded language for Black people as hulking and aggressive. 

And somehow, this characterization did not apply to hard fouls that Black WNBA players have taken with grace. Think about it: we didn’t see this type of discourse when Connecticut Sun forward Alyssa Thomas, a Black woman, choke-slammed Chicago Sky rookie Angel Reese, another Black woman who is as much of an iconic college basketball player, with a national title under her belt, as Clark.

The word “assault” ate at my inner child, particularly the pig-tailed me who played on a Black girls’ basketball team in a predominately white suburban Catholic archdiocese league. On the varsity team at St. Catherine-St. Lucy School in Oak Park, I learned for the first time how the world views Black girls competing against white girls. Too aggressive. Too sassy. Too rough.

As a little girl on the West Side, ball was life for me. I grew up watching the Chicago Bulls win championships. I played ball with the neighborhood boys who cut out the bottom of milk crates and nailed them to trees, wooden electricity poles and anything else they could find. 

My stepdad played in leagues at gyms, YMCAs and parks across Chicago, and I trailed behind him, dribbling a ball and wearing his “Hoop Til It Hurts” gear whenever I could. He made a makeshift backboard out of paper and taped it above the archway, turning the living room of our North Lawndale apartment into a mini basketball court so him, my stepbrother and I had something to aim at when we were crossing each other up in the house. My uncles played ball. One even got some face time as a St. Joseph High School player in the iconic 1994 basketball documentary, Hoop Dreams. At my granddad’s house, I always hooped with my uncles and older boy cousins in the backyard.

When my friend’s dad volunteered to coach a girls basketball team at St. Catherine-St.Lucy, I was excited to tap into my inner Allen Iverson. Practice solidified that we had a little decent squad. We played hard because, even though we were girls, we were taught to be tough. Our predominantly Black school was the ugly stepchild of the archdiocese. Our tuition was affordable compared to other schools in the Oak Park-River Forest area, and most of the students crossed the Austin-Oak Park border to attend the school. Our parents sent us there in hopes of getting a good education. So in everything we did, with the minimal resources we had, we played to win.

In our squad’s first year playing in the league, we made it to the championship. It should have been a moment of celebration, but my memories are muddied by trauma. I remember the constant sound of the referees’ whistles. They kept calling fouls on us during the game, indicating that we were playing too rough. I remember the sound of our parents huffing and puffing in protest from the sidelines, alerting us that something bigger than us was at play here. 

The referees kicked my mom out of the gym because she unabashedly stood up for her little girl and our team. I remember tears streaming down my face. The referees decided that game for us well before walking into that gym. We lost that game and weren’t allowed to play in the league the next year. Our coach, bless him, took us to a park district league to play instead. But my relationship to the game I loved changed after that experience.

Black girls and women in sports are expected to compete within this imaginary box of cute and graceful femininity, especially when their rival is white. We saw the world paint the GOAT, Serena Williams, as a hulking Black woman with an attitude in her tennis matches against Anna Kournikova. Unfortunately, it seems, the media still hasn’t learned its lesson.

is the editor-in-chief of The TRiiBE and a 2023-2024 John S. Knight Journalism Fellow.