Appearing as a guest on the YouTube show co-hosted by former NBA player Gilbert Arenas, Swoopes made the following assertions:
- That Clark is a 25-year-old beating up on young kids. (She’s 22.)
- That Clark takes “about 40 shots a game.” (She’s at 22.3 field goal attempts for the season and 19.7 for her career, while Swoopes averaged 24.9 in two years at Texas Tech.)
- That the all-time Division I scoring record Clark is about to break isn’t legitimate because she has a fifth year of eligibility due to COVID-19. (Clark will break the record in less than four.)
But rather than pile on Swoopes, who briefly acknowledged on social media that she was mistaken about the scoring record but didn’t walk back the rest of it, let’s look at this a different way.
What we have here is good, old-fashioned player-hatin’. And the fact that Swoopes has riled up people on both sides of this conversation is the clearest sign that women’s basketball now has a seat at the big boys’ (and girls’) table.
When we talk about wanting equal opportunity for women’s sports in America, it’s focused mostly on things like money and exposure, but the real coin of the realm is how it impacts the narrative and the culture. A women’s sport only truly arrives in America at the moment we start talking about it — and sometimes being critical of its participants — just as we would a men’s sport. Anything less would be patronizing.
And guess what? The pettiness and jealousy of ex-athletes grumbling about the stars less than half their age is a tale as old as sports themselves. It drives debate. It sparks anger. And now it’s one of the best parts of following this remarkable time when Clark is appearing in State Farm commercials, packing arenas every night and ultimately establishing herself as the biggest star in college basketball of either gender.
If you watch the entire segment with Arenas, Kenyon Martin and host Josiah Johnson, it’s abundantly clear that Swoopes does not like Clark. Though she acknowledges almost through gritted teeth that Clark “can shoot the basketball, no doubt about it,” the conversation veers mostly toward skepticism about whether her game will translate to the WNBA.
“Will Caitlin Clark be a good pro? Absolutely,” Swoopes said. “Will Caitlin Clark come into the WNBA and do what she’s doing right now immediately? Absolutely not. Not gonna happen.
“Caitlin Clark right now probably takes about 40 shots a game. I said that because when she comes to the league, regardless of what team she goes to that has vets on that team, she probably ain’t gonna get 40 shots a game. And here’s the other thing that you don’t want to talk about is the defense. Like, you gotta guard somebody.”
You can close your eyes and imagine that same conversation about Trae Young or Jimmer Fredette or any other super-duper college star who, for one reason or another, became polarizing players that demanded our eyeballs every second they stepped on the court.
That’s growth. That’s sports. That’s entertainment.
And if we know anything about Clark, she’s going to handle it a lot better than fans who want to act like a little trash talk is a crime against humanity. We saw a bit of it last April when LSU’s Angel Reese taunted her near the end of the national championship game, waving her hand in front of her face and pointing to her ring finger. Clark had done the same “you can’t see me” wave to a Louisville player at the end of the Elite Eight.
Dish it out? You better be able to take it. Clark knows the rules, and she didn’t complain. With 9.9 million people watching on television — the highest-rated final ever — it was a resounding statement that women’s college basketball could unapologetically deliver a show with all the elements we praise in high-level men’s sports.
Including the personality conflict.
Though Swoopes acknowledged that Clark and Reese eventually playing in the WNBA will help the league draw new fans and viewers, you can understand why the great players of her generation might bristle at how this moment is playing out.
They didn’t get this audience, this adulation or these commercial opportunities. Women’s basketball endured decades of put-downs and apathy with incremental breakthroughs. Someone like Swoopes — an NCAA champion, a four-time WNBA champion, three-time Olympic gold medalist and a true icon of the game — was a big story in her time but not this kind of phenomenon.
So why Clark? Why now?
That’s a fair question. What’s not fair is to suggest she isn’t earning this.
For some reason, Swoopes had it in her mind that Clark is going to become the NCAA’s all-time leading scorer because she played longer in college than Kelsey Plum, the current record-holder.
Plum, though, played 139 college games for Washington. Clark has played 123 and needs just 66 points to pass her. Yes, if Clark takes advantage of her fifth year of eligibility, it will skew the record book. But there should be no doubt what she’s about to do in the next two or three games is as legitimate as any other record in the book.
Anything else is just player-hatin’. And another piece of evidence women’s basketball has finally made it.
Follow columnist Dan Wolken on social media @DanWolken
This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: Sheryl Swoopes’ digs at Caitlin Clark prove women’s hoops has arrived