WNBA star A’ja Wilson states the obvious and keeps it moving as Caitlin Clark era begins

OPINION: Eyeing another title, the two-time MVP knows race and double standards are pillars of America. 

A'ja Wilson #22 of the Las Vegas Aces receives her 2023 WNBA championship ring before the team's home opener against the Phoenix Mercury on May 14, 2024 in Las Vegas, Nevada. (Photo by Ethan Miller/Getty Images)

Editor’s note: The following article is an op-ed, and the views expressed are the author’s own. Read more opinions on theGrio.

If we’re being honest, most people couldn’t pick Las Vegas Aces star A’ja Wilson out of a police lineup. Not because she’s Black, but because top WNBA players don’t enjoy the same widespread recognition afforded to their NBA counterparts.

New York Liberty star Breanna Stewart, another two-time MVP, is white and few people could point her out, either. 

Wilson and Stewart stand out as unusually tall women — both 6 foot, 4 inches — but otherwise barely draw second glances in a crowd. Women’s basketball historically hasn’t attracted large enough national TV audiences to create many A-list celebrities.

But it’s a new day, and the WNBA is on fire with unprecedented chartered flights, increased broadcasts, booming sales and a pair of expansion teams coming aboard soon. Players young and old have operated in relative darkness for years, but now there’s shine for everyone to bask in, largely due to rookies Caitlin Clark and Angel Reese. 

Their college rivalry placed them among the W’s most recognizable faces before either reported to training camp. They’re coming in together like another ballyhooed salt-and-pepper duo — Larry Bird and Magic Johnson — who entered and uplifted the NBA 45 years ago. Bird and Johnson validated the hype and ended among the NBA’s all-time top 50.

Whether Clark or Reese reach that level, they’ll face the same conversations about race and double standards, pillars of America. 

That’s true in sports and every facet of life, which partially explains Clark’s meteoric rise as THEE face of women’s hoops over established stars like Wilson, whose team opened play Tuesday as favorites to win its third consecutive title. 

Pointing out the obvious shouldn’t be controversial. But some folks’ fragility makes the conversation uncomfortable for them. Not Wilson.

“I think it’s a huge thing. I think a lot of people may say it’s not about Black and white, but to me, it is,” Wilson told the Associated Press. “It really is because you can be top-notch at what you are as a Black woman, but yet maybe that’s something that people don’t want to see.

“They don’t see it as marketable, so it doesn’t matter how hard I work. It doesn’t matter what we all do as Black women, we’re still going to be swept underneath the rug. That’s why it boils my blood when people say it’s not about race because it is.”

When Clark signed with Nike for $28 million and a signature shoe, she joined Stewart, Elena Delle Donne and Sabrina Ionescu — all white in a league that’s 70% Black — as the only players with their own Nike kicks. Wilson broke the streak last week, and Nike took a shot at her fans who previously were mad: 

“You thought we’d sleep on an SEC champion, national champion, #1 draft pick, five-time All-Star, U.S. Olympic gold winner, WNBA Finals MVP, a statue-having, New York Times Best Seller, TIME 100 Most Influential People in 2024, two-time WNBA champion, two-time Defensive Player of the Year, two-time WNBA MVP, and pettiest hooper on the internet? … Of course, A’ja’s got a shoe.” 

Wilson’s shoe deal was in the works well before Clark’s contract materialized in a flash. But that doesn’t change the optics. Hate to say it, but Clark might’ve been signed a year earlier if she were blonde, marketers’ second-favorite color. 

Their standards ain’t necessarily our standards, on or off the court.

Sports

Clark’s opponents will use each game to vent any frustration over her favored treatment. The results might not be as lopsided as Serena Williams going 20-2 lifetime vs. Maria Sharapova, who in 2013 received $10 million more in endorsements despite being a lesser player. But Wilson and every foe will bring their A-game against Clark, whose Indiana Fever will bring the most eyeballs.   

If you can’t beat ‘er at the bank, whup ‘er between the lines.

The racial component always adds a little extra spice and that’s fine. As long as everyone remains good-natured and well-behaved, we can root for whomever, enjoy the competition and dap afterward. Fools wagering that Clark wins the MVP are straight tripping, but it’s not my money going up in flames.

For a sure thing, bet that Clark gets unconditional support from sister teammates like Aliyah Boston, NaLyssa Smith, Erica Wheeler and Kelsey Mitchell. They’ll have her back like play cousins, letting everyone know that Clark is fam and not to be messed with. Especially Boston, who left South Carolina last year and quickly became a force, winning Rookie of the Year and making the All-Star team.

The Fever’s stated goal is to reach the playoffs after going 13-27 last season, and a combined 11 wins in the two prior seasons. But anything short of reaching the Finals will be a disappointment for Vegas and Wilson, who’s generally considered the world’s best player. She says teams coming for the queens better not miss.

“I’m sure a lot of people think we’re arrogant in some cases, but we’re us and we’re true to us,” Wilson said. “So we can’t worry about what anyone else has going on or what they bring in here.”

She knows marketers and fans can be slow on the uptake. But the game always recognizes the game.

Black, white or other.


Deron Snyder, from Brooklyn, is an award-winning columnist who lives near D.C. and pledged Alpha at HU-You Know! He’s reaching high, lying low, moving on, pushing off, keeping up, and throwing down. Got it? Get more at blackdoorventures.com/deron.

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