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Praising basketball phenom Clark ‘not a substitute for fair pay’

Trish Zornio

Unless you’ve been living under a rock, you know who Caitlin Clark is. So you probably also know that previous weeks saw Clark navigate a series of trials unique to women.

First, Clark made a surprise appearance on April 13 on Saturday Night Live’s Weekend Update, where she proceeded to roast Michael Che for his series of jokes on women’s sports. She capped off her jokes with a nod to the women before her who made it possible.

Second, Clark successfully navigated an awkward moment where a male reporter hit on her during a news conference. He has since apologized, but only after stealing Clark’s moment.

The third and most notable blow came when Clark’s soon-to-be annual salary with the WNBA was announced at $76,000, a number found to be more than 100 times less than the men. The uproar was real, but this isn’t new. Women athletes have suffered drastic pay gaps for decades.

Arguments of lack of viewership or fan interest fall flat, and Clark is proof. Not only has Clark brought in record viewership without any change in pay, but decades of lack of investment in women’s sports have held women down over their male peers.

Yet without fail, the pay gap is attributed to a lack of interest in women’s sports instead of the obvious: The more you invest, the bigger something gets. Without more investment, women’s sports languish. It’s a self-fulfilling prophecy.

Of course, Clark has risen to the occasion, facing each setback with grace and poise as most women learn to do. She hasn’t complained. She works harder. And in the end, she will accept less pay for more work because she has to. What other option does she have?

Meanwhile, her male counterparts continue to take their extra accolades and pot of gold to the bank. This needs to stop.

How is it that in 2024, the NBA and WNBA can openly perpetuate more than a 100 times difference between men’s and women’s pay, and not fix it immediately? Who accepts this outcome? Because putting women like Clark on a pedestal as an example of women chipping away at the glass ceiling, while inspirational, is not a substitute for fair pay.

I’m not asking for Clark so much as all women. In the end, Clark will close other deals for millions and be fine. But fine is not equal, and I’m particularly asking for the millions of women who struggle with sexism in their private lives outside of Page Six.

Because if we can’t fix something so blatant and so obvious such as the sexism Clark faces, how can we possibly begin to address the more quiet sexism in everyday lives?

In this way, I believe Clark’s fandom goes well beyond what she offers in basketball talent to how women fight for relevance in a male-dominated industry. Women in America know what it’s like to have to work twice as hard just to be taken seriously.

We understand being awkwardly hit on at work or how demoralizing it is to watch male colleagues be elevated again and again, even when our work is as good or better.

In short, we understand what it feels like to be chronically undervalued, underpaid and underestimated – even if the difference in pay isn’t $12 million.

I’m living proof of Clark’s draw beyond basketball. Generally speaking, I don’t watch professional sports of any kind by any gender. But Clark makes me want to. I guess in some small way I understand her battle, no matter what jersey she wears or sport she plays.

So I, for one, thank Clark for highlighting inequity for women, even though she and others shouldn’t have to bear the burden of being a poster child for sexism. To this end, I do not accept her being made into a beacon of hope as a substitute for actual fair pay and treatment.

Because at the end of the day, no matter how well Clark does moving forward, she has already served up a legacy. The only question that remains is how many more years must pass before her talent is recognized the same way we recognize men’s: with cold, hard cash.

Trish Zornio contributes Opinion columns to The Colorado Sun, a Denver-based nonprofit, nonpartisan news organization.