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Caitlinsanity: A Pre-History

Cathy Engelbert wnba
A hard foul on Caitlin Clark and its aftermath was the latest sign that the WNBA had ascended to a new level of cultural relevance. Photo: Ethan Miller/Getty Images
John Ourand
June 10, 2024

I went over to a college buddy’s house last night to watch Game 2 of the NBA Finals. And at some point during the second quarter, my friend offered his opinion on USA Basketball’s controversial decision to leave Caitlin Clark off the Olympics roster. He thought it was an abject mistake—a view consistent with much of the punditocracy, who want to see Clark rewarded for her impact on the sport, even if her WNBA debut has not matched the hype. On the bright side, I reminded him, Clark’s impact on the sport has been profound in ways both quantifiable (the WNBA set attendance and TV records in May) and cultural. To wit: I can’t remember the last time a women’s basketball roster omission became national news.

To get a deeper sense of how Caitlinsanity has reshaped the league, I sat down last week with WNBA commissioner Cathy Engelbert after a BofA Securities event in Montauk. USA Basketball hadn’t yet announced its decision to keep Clark off the roster, but our conversation came a couple days after the Chicago Sky’s Chennedy Carter committed a flagrant foul on the Indiana rookie—a debatable cheap shot that catalyzed a lot of heated conversations among the First Take set about the role of race and sexual orientation in the league. Was Clark, who is white and straight, the beneficiary of privilege in a league that is racially and sexually diverse? Anyway, agree or disagree, the hard foul and its aftermath was the latest sign that the WNBA had ascended to a new level of cultural relevance.