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Caitlin Clark and the WNBA deserve to be treated like the professionals they are

Columnist Gregg Doyel’s mea culpa would have been more effective if he'd addressed what his exchange with Clark says about how WNBA players have often been disregarded.
wnba basketball star
Indiana Fever's Caitlin Clark during a WNBA basketball news conference, in Indianapolis, on April 17.Darron Cummings / AP

UPDATE (May 7, 2024, 5:28 p.m. ET): Indianapolis Star columnist Gregg Doyle will not be covering the Indiana Fever this season, a spokesperson for that newspaper told The Washington Post.

When Caitlin Clark first arrived in Indianapolis to be introduced as a member of the Indiana Fever Wednesday morning, the team rolled out the red carpet for the No. 1 overall pick in Monday night’s WNBA draft. Screaming fans greeted her. Her new head coach, Christie Sides, was fist-pumping. There were even donuts iced with Clark’s new Fever jersey. That level of pomp and circumstance is to be expected for a generational talent like Clark. 

But what wasn’t expected, and what was frankly inappropriate for a moment like this, was a journalist’s deeply cringeworthy remarks to Clark during her first Indianapolis news conference as a professional basketball player.

What was inappropriate for a moment like this, was a journalist’s cringeworthy remarks to Clark during her first Indianapolis news conference.

Gregg Doyel, a columnist for the Indianapolis Star, introduced himself and said, “Real quick I’ll do this” as he formed the shape of a heart with his hands. “You like that?” Clark stuttered back in response.

“I like that you’re here,” Doyel replied. Clark then interrupted and replied providing context for what’s become her signature gesture: “Yeah, I do that at my family after every game,” she said as she looked down from the mic.

“Well, OK, start doing it to me and we’ll get along just fine,” Doyel replied.

Clark’s facial expression said it all. Her eyes were wide and her mouth was wide open. She smiled trying to hide the shock and discomfort. Doyel finally got to his question, but the damage had been done. 

Here Clark was making her debut as a WNBA player. She was making her debut as a professional basketball player in the U.S. and she wasn’t treated like a professional. 

She was met with an incredibly unprofessional exchange that not only served as a distraction, but it took away from the rest of the presser and overshadowed Clark’s first moments in her new home.

Doyel apologized in a very awkward column hours after the press conference. “I’m devastated to realize I’m part of the problem,” he wrote in his apology. “I screwed up Wednesday during my first interaction with No. 1 overall draft pick Caitlin Clark of the Indiana Fever.”

I’m devastated to realize I’m part of the problem. I screwed up Wednesday during my first interaction with No. 1 overall draft pick Caitlin Clark of the Indiana Fever.

INDIANAPOLIS STAR COLUMNIST gregg doyel

It was about 500 words of apologizing and navel-gazing. Doyel’s mea culpa would have been much more effective if he had addressed what his exchange with Clark represents about how WNBA players have often been disregarded by journalists like him.

For so long, women’s sports, both college and professional, have been denigrated and belittled. They’ve been infantilized rather than treated as athletes worthy of attention. Such behavior has been especially prevalent in WNBA coverage. 

After Doyel’s inappropriate remarks to Clark, Lindsay Gibbs, author of the Power Plays Newsletter, predicted on X that local and national reporters who initially thought “WNBA coverage was beneath them” are going to come and cover the sport and expect “a red carpet” and a round of “applause.” 

She’s right. But, as someone who covers women’s basketball, I can tell you that that’s already been happening. In the fall, when the New York Liberty made it back to the WNBA finals for the first time in 22 years, reporters who had previously only covered the market’s NBA teams parachuted in without taking the time or due diligence to learn about the league or all the things that had preceded the team arriving at such a big moment. Some of their questions proved that they hadn’t done their homework.

I’ve covered the Liberty closely since 2019 and have seen up close what the team has been through for the past five years. While I welcome folks in to grow the coverage, I believe that growth ought to come without arrogance and chauvinism. 

“Sports media has been extremely complicit in marginalizing and infantilizing women’s sports,” Jemele Hill wrote on X. “A lot of the commentary and coverage is now coming from people who have little experience covering female athletes (not sure Doyel fits that category) — which is probably frustrating to the people who have been covering them for years.”

I can confirm. It is very frustrating. But, in addition to sports journalists “growing up,” there are other solutions to prevent what I experienced this past fall and what Clark experienced Wednesday. Phil Lewis, a deputy editor at Huffington Post, wrote a viral post on X about how he hopes that a growth in the WNBA leads to “a growth in media coverage.” He explained how there’s interest in players and their storylines and how you need “strong writers/journalists to tell those stories.”

Media companies need to invest in people who know women’s basketball to cover the sport full-time.

Those strong writers and journalists have existed, but they haven’t always been paid what they should be to cover a sport that’s no less legitimate than the men’s game. Media companies need to invest in people who know women’s basketball to cover the sport full time. Corporate sponsors should put their money where their mouth is and invest in the startup companies out there that cover women’s sports consistently and with respect. I work for one of them.

It’s disappointing that there were some fascinating moments during Clark’s introductory news conference that were overshadowed by Doyel’s exchange with her. Clark addressed how she expects to deal with the pressures of being the face of a pro franchise, and she discussed women’s sports history, even name-dropping Dr. Christine Grant, one of the architects of Title IX, who worked at the University of Iowa, where Clark broke multiple NCAA records.

Clark even was self-deprecating and called herself a “head case” when she began her college career. This was a moment of humility for Clark. As Wright Thompson wrote for ESPN last month, Clark struggled with empathy and respectful body language when she was a young teenager with giant dreams. 

Those moments were much more compelling than the one that has received the most attention. 

The quality of media coverage matters because media coverage shapes how viewers and consumers see a product. When media members covering a sport don’t take it seriously, then why would we expect the general public to do so? Sports coverage has generally been aimed at satisfying the stereotypical white, male sports fan.  What’s going to happen, then, when journalists who are used to appeasing the interests and tastes of mostly men have to write to the interests of WNBA fans, a more diverse demographic?

“The cultural shift in sports journalism has yet to be invested in enough to change the way the average person consumes things on the ground more deeply,” ESPN’s Clinton Yates wrote.

What’s going to happen when journalists used to appeasing the interests and tastes of mostly men have to write to the interests of WNBA fans, a more diverse demographic?

Will women’s sports ever be covered like men’s? Will they be treated with as much care, consideration and consistency? I’m not sure. Women’s sports are more political and inherently address deeper issues within society than men’s sports ever have. Could there be a large enough audience for that type of coverage too? 

Clark’s appearance on Saturday Night Live is proof of women’s basketball moving further into the mainstream. It will be interesting to see how people who often dunk on the WNBA and women’s basketball act when their hate is not seen as cool anymore. That’s exactly what Clark told Michael Che on the show's "Weekend Update."

It will be fascinating to see how established journalists like Doyel, many of whom haven’t covered women’s sports, will approach their coverage going forward. Treating women’s professional athletes like the pros they are should have never been a question.