The WNBA and its two opposing camps

The Fever’s Caitlin Clark is guarded by the Sun’s DiJonai Carrington.

Jessica Hill/AP

There are at least two camps when it comes to the WNBA.

One roots passionately for the league’s success. The other resents being told to root passionately for the league’s success.

The unfortunate, predictable illustration of this was the reaction to rookie Caitlin Clark’s WNBA debut Tuesday. She scored a team-high 20 points in the Fever’s loss to the Sun but shot 5 of 15 from the field and had 10 turnovers. It didn’t require a Rorschach test to figure out how the camps would see her game.

Rah-rah TV commentators accentuated the positive (20 points!) while saying Clark would learn from her mistakes. Social-media critics fired away, and if their message could be summed up in one sentence, it would be something like, ‘‘LeBron James never had 10 turnovers in one game!’’ (Um, he actually had 11 in a game in 2018 against the Pacers.)

It doesn’t have to be like this. There are levelheaded approaches that would be better for the league in the long term and better for people who apparently are easily irritated.

To the pro-WNBA side: Let the women’s game rise or fall on its merits. Stop treating the league as if it were some sort of celebration requiring mandatory attendance. It’s OK for people to see warts. If the WNBA is going to continue to grow and attract new fans — and I think it will — it will be because of excellent teamwork, talented players and exciting new stars such as Clark. If it succeeds wildly, it won’t be because fans got caught up in a communal pep rally or because they felt a moral obligation to support the women’s game; it’ll be because the players are good and interesting.

To the people who think the WNBA is a plot to further erode traditional values: Go away. Your gastrointestinal tract will thank you. To those of you unhappy with the attention Sky rookie Angel Reese received for getting dressed up to attend the Met Gala last week, have you wondered why TV cameras train on NBA stars as they arrive for a game? It’s because fans want to see what the players are wearing. You say Reese is going to be a controversial pain in the butt for the Sky? You might have noticed how off-court drama makes the NBA go round. Reese surely has noticed and plans to capitalize on it in the WNBA. Smart woman.

Let me guess: You don’t like the NBA, either. Sorry, I can’t help you.

One camp is overly protective of the WNBA, almost to a patronizing extent. The other can’t get past the fact that female basketball players aren’t as good as male basketball players.

There’s a trap here for both sides, and it has to do with comparing. If you love the NBA and apply its speed and above-the-rim athleticism to the women’s game, then you’re never going to like the WNBA. It’s shortsighted. Rock music is more popular than classical music, but it’s possible to appreciate both. Stop comparing.

The WNBA’s loudest supporters cheered the league’s recent decision to charter flights for teams the next two seasons. Many news outlets ran stories about it. The applause from fans and commentators does raise a question: Outside of the league office, the players and the teams they play for, why should anybody else care? The answer, presumably, is that NBA teams have flown charters for years and that it’s a fairness issue. But the NBA and WNBA are separate entities. One is a $10 billion-a-year operation; the other made about $200 million last year. Stop comparing.

Advertisers see an opportunity with the WNBA, which is how we know the league is gaining real traction. Much of that has to do with Clark. And if veteran players begrudge her influence, they’re terribly misguided. She’s going to put money in their pockets, just as Tiger Woods did for professional golfers when he burst onto the scene.

I don’t know how big these two opposing camps are, but I do know this: There’s another camp, a vast middle, that has no agenda. It’s filled with people who want to watch basketball. People who want to appreciate a high skill level. People who want to decide on their own if the WNBA is worthy of their attention.

Not everything has to be polarizing these days. It only seems that way.

Enjoy the league for what it is. Or ignore it. Basketball is a game, not a crusade.

And life is short.

More WNBA coverage
No. 7 overall pick Angel Reese is a projected starter Wednesday night.
Clark went scoreless for nearly the first 15 minutes before getting more comfortable in the Fever’s 92-71 loss.
Games will be shown locally on WCIU-TV, WMEU-TV and Marquee Sports Network.
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