Cote: Lionel Messi is hero/savior in MLS, but Caitlin Clark is resented in WNBA. Here’s why | Opinion

Joe Timmerman/IndyStar/Joe Timmerman/IndyStar / USA TODAY NETWORK

It is not an exaggeration to say that what Caitlin Clark is doing for the WNBA is analogous to what Lionel Messi is doing for Major League Soccer. In each case, one extraordinary individual has arrived as a godsend to instantly lift the stature of an entire league and sport in America.

The difference? Messi arrived to unequivocal adulation. For Clark, amid the cheering is the discord of resentment.

We see a redefining of what superstardom is, really. It isn’t just the tangible of stats or championships won. It is mystique and aura, the ability to fill arenas once barren, to make flat-lining TV ratings spike, to be a league’s biggest star upon arrival, before the first shot is taken. Think LeBron James. Think Tiger Woods.

Messi being that for Inter Miami and MLS is no surprise. He arrived late in his career after epic international accomplishments for Argentina and Barcelona. He arrived front line in the global G.O.A.T. pen, an athlete literally idolized by not so much fans as worshipers. I have seen the scene at Inter Miami matches: An hour or more after the game has ended, thousands of fans behind police barriers are waiting for even a fleeting glimpse of Messi walking out.

There is no controversy in Messi-as-Messiah for MLS. He is defended hard by players trying to impress him, but before matches and after, those same opponents move in for a selfie, an autograph, an exchange of jerseys.

So, so different with Clark’s arrival in the WNBA as top overall draft pick for the Indiana Fever, after a college career at Iowa setting all-time scoring records. Most of us had not heard of her two years ago. Now she is an instant phenom — and for reasons not yet entirely clear. And in that there is continuing controversy.

Clark is the Girl Next Door, albeit in an all-white neighborhood. And, yes, race is obviously integral in all of this, interwoven in the reaction she has gotten across a league whose athlete majority is Black. There is resentment. Is it jealousy? Or is it legit incredulity that Clark gets to be the instant Face of Women’s Basketball when so many faces of color deserve and have earned that stature more?

A’ja Wilson of the Las Vegas Aces certainly is one. She arrived as No. 1 overall draft pick, too, six years earlier, and has lived up to be the best player in a league with a lot of contenders for that crown.

But here comes Clark to the front of the line. Here comes the lanky white girl getting the huge Nike shoe deal.

“A lot of people may say it’s not about Black and white, but to me it is,” Wilson has said, of Clark’s catapult rise. “You can be top notch at what you are as a Black woman, but they don’t see it as marketable. [We get] swept underneath the rug.” Wilson says people denying the Clark phenomenon is driven by race “boils my blood.”

It is also fair in this to note Clark is not the perpetrator here. Although she can be an instigator, a complainer on the court. She certainly is not the victim, either. But she should not be blamed for being white, for accepting a Nike offer, or for being the reason fans and TV viewers want to watch her play. She did not campaign to be face of the league, but was anointed by the oft-mysterious consensus of a country still majority white. In this case, TV/media, advertisers and the league itself saw a cash cow not Black or white, but green. They have not been wrong.

There is a residual positive, the rising-tide theory. More attention on the WNBA because of Clark cannot help but result in more collateral benefit for players such as Wilson to be seen and shine in the broader spotlight.

By degrees in time there will be a growing appreciation for the caliber of the WNBA as a whole and for other star players as America realizes Caitlin Clark, college superstar, is sort of closer to just pretty good in the pros. That might be harsh, or at least premature. She is a rookie, after all. As I write this Clark is 15th in the league in scoring (16.3), but only 23rd in three-point percentage (her forte’), and leading the league in most turnovers.

But she also was only the second WNBA rookie in history to top 150 points, 50 rebounds and 50 assists in her first 10 games.

She will surely make the WNBA All-Star team on the strength of fan voting — and that surely will be another ember tossed on the controversy fire. Same if she is voted Rookie of the Year.

It was notable Clark was not selected this week for the women’s U.S. national team to play in this summer’s Paris Olympics. There was predictable outrage from some. I was mildly surprised simply because, well, it’s Caitlin! Clearly, NBC TV did not have a vote. The network is the big loser; Clark on the team would absolutely have helped ratings.

Otherwise, it was a good call. And a fair one.

There are 12 players (including Wilson) better, more experienced and more proven than Clark today. Right now, I believe not making the team also was good for Clark, too.

This young woman went straight from Iowa to a grueling start in the WNBA — one full of searing spotlight, unprecedented pressure, aggressive defense, harder-than-they-needed-to-be fouls, and palpable resentment from unwelcoming opponents.

Messi came to MLS on a red carpet surrounded by adulation and cheering.

Clark has gotten that in the WNBA, but also elbows and animus, and stares on the court that must feel a little like hatred.

She could probably use those couple weeks’ rest during the league’s Olympic break. Go back to Iowa, and exhale.

I believe Caitlin Clark will be great at this next level, too, but she’ll have to work like never before to be that. And if her first two months in the WNBA are any indication, her climb to get there will continue to be hardwood theater worth watching.

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