Dr. Jessica Johnson: Women’s sports on the rise

Like many sports fans this year, I have been in awe of the on-court accomplishments of Iowa women’s basketball star Caitlin Clark. Her highlight reels on YouTube show her draining “logo threes” on the Hawkeyes’ home court combined with precision backdoor passes to set up her teammates for easy layups. The timing for Clark topping LSU legend Pete Maravich’s NCAA scoring record of 3,667 points could not have been better as it occurred in March during Women’s History Month. Clark will not only be etched in college basketball history for her incredible scoring feats but also for her overall impact on the women’s game, as current underclassmen stars like USC’s JuJu Watkins, Notre Dame’s Hannah Hidalgo, LSU’s Mikaylah Williams, and Ohio State’s Cotie McMahon have already boldly stepped into the spotlight. Watching the gifted athleticism of these female basketball phenoms is no doubt going to bring the highest TV ratings ever for the women’s NCAA tourney.

In thinking about just how far women’s college basketball has come since the 1980s during my middle and high school years, I reflect fondly on the dominant USC teams led by Cheryl Miller, the McGee twins, Pam and Paula, and Cynthia Cooper that won back-to-back national championships in 1983 and 1984. Although women’s sports only got small headlines in those days, these Trojan squads were able to garner enough visibility to let folks know these ladies had major game. Miller ended up scoring 3,018 points in her USC career while crashing the boards and pulling down 1,534 rebounds. My hometown of Athens, Georgia also had a bona fide female star in Teresa Edwards, who played point guard for the UGA Lady Bulldogs from 1982 to 1986 and went on to become a four-time Olympic gold medalist. I can only imagine the huge fandom across the country these 1980s heroines would have amassed if they played in today’s era of Name, Image, and Likeness (NIL), social media, and more lucrative TV deals for women’s NCAA games. Clark’s NIL brand, due to her extraordinary talent, is worth a little over $3 million.

As Clark holds the NCAA scoring record with 3,771 points before she leads Iowa into the women’s tournament, many would say that there is pressure on her to win the championship this year, but I doubt she is feeling stressed to due all of the obvious fun she is having in her last college season. However, there is one narrative that I hope will be less prevalent regarding Clark, which is the analysis of her being a White female star in a sport that is dominated by Black athletes. Black female athletes comprise roughly 41 percent of division 1 women’s basketball players and 70 percent of WNBA players. I have seen sports commentaries asserting that Clark will have a difficult time as a pro due to being a star White player and arguing that Clark benefits from the media traditionally giving more attention to White athletes. It’s true that Black college female athletes have historically been largely ignored by mainstream outlets, and they still lag behind their White counterparts in sports participation when assessing Title IX gains, although the landmark

Title IX legislation in 1972 was not designed to address racial discrimination. Yet, when looking at how Clark is seen as a transcendent basketball superstar, this bodes well overall for women’s hoops as viewership is at an all-time high. According to Sports Media Watch, over three million people tuned in to the Iowa-Nebraska Big Ten Women’s final, which almost overtook the ratings of the Duke-North Carolina rivalry. The SEC women’s basketball championship game on ESPN between South Carolina and LSU had the most viewers for a regular season since 2010. The ratings will definitely soar if Iowa meets South Carolina for the national title.

Just as Clark’s star is shining brightly, so are others like LSU’s Angel Reese, who has a NIL valuation of $1.8 million according to On3. JuJu Watkins is also making mad bank, as the USC freshman has NIL deals with Nike, CELSIUS energy drink, and NerdWallet. Clark doesn’t have to pass the baton to Watkins and other freshmen stars. They are already running with it. As March Madness begins for the women, I want to see these young ladies genuinely celebrated for their elite court skills. Three years ago, before Watkins joined the Trojans, she tweeted that she was “humbled by the experiences and blessings God has [given her].” In looking at how the women’s game has progressed in this short time span, it’s a humbling experience to watch them bring so much joy and excitement to fans.

Dr. Jessica A. Johnson is a lecturer in the English department at The Ohio State University-Lima. Reach her at [email protected] or on Twitter @JjSmojc. Her opinion does not necessarily represent the views of The Lima News or its owner, AIM Media.