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Caitlin Clark and women’s basketball

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I was one of approximately 12.3 million people who watched the NCAA tournament game between Iowa and LSU on Monday night. This is a massive viewing audience for a sports event. It’s larger than:

(1) The audiences for four of the five games in last year’s NBA finals series.

(2) The average audience for the last four years of World Series games.

(3) The audience for any regular season college football game last season other than Michigan-Ohio State.

The number is even more impressive, given that the game was on ESPN, while all of (1) and (2) and most of (3) were on free broadcast TV.

Funny/not funny side note: I googled “Iowa LSU right wing outrage” just for the heck of it, expecting to find something, and bingo:

“This is the LSU women’s basketball team. They walked off the court during the National Anthem,” wrote the prominent right-wing account Libs of TikTok. “They just got CRUSHED by Iowa 94-87. LOVE TO SEE IT!”

“Absolutely despicable and disgusting moment as LSU women’s basketball players leave the court during the National Anthem.. in the Women’s NCAA Tournament..” wrote another conservative account. “They lost.. Good riddance..”

However, the video circulating on social media does not show the team leaving mid-national anthem; they were already off the court and missed it entirely.

LSU head coach Kim Mulkey said there was “nothing intentionally done” in missing the anthem and chalked it up to the team’s pregame routine.

“Honestly, I don’t even know when the anthem was played,” Mulkey said. “We kind of have a routine when [our players are] on the floor, and they come off at the 12-minute mark [prior to the game].”

Some general observations:

I had never watched more than bits and pieces of a women’s college basketball game before, and found this one highly entertaining. Yes the absolute level of play is much lower than a men’s college game, but the level of play in a men’s college game is vastly lower than in an NBA game, and that doesn’t seem to matter, nor should it, to fans of these respective sports. For example, my lifelong passion for the University of Michigan’s football team isn’t affected in the slightest by the knowledge that even last seasons’s national championship team, which humiliated Ryan Day’s Ohio State squad for the third straight season (I just like typing out those words) would be destroyed by any NFL team, or even the Jets. Spectating pleasure is mostly independent of the absolute level of play, which is a good thing given that 99.99% of any given spectator sport is contested at levels lower than the very highest.

Caitlin Clark is an absolutely mesmerizing athlete to watch. It’s always compelling to see true greatness at any level, plus her individual style of play is extremely fun in itself (for our more ancient LGM basketball fans, her game reminds me of Pete Maravich’s way way back in the day).

One thing that being married to my wife — a star basketball player in high school — has made me appreciate is that competitive sports, especially team sports, are really good for girls in particular. She’s emphasized to me how important it was and is that high school girls can do something public that gets attention for them not based on their appearance, although she’s also pointed out that there’s still an unfortunate tendency to sexualize female athletes in terms of their athletic self-presentation in comparison to men (Compare for instance the clothes that top men and women tennis players wear on the court).

I’m generally very skeptical of the whole character-building the battle of Waterloo was won on the playing fields of Eton line of argument, which unduly emphasizes the social value of team sports, typically for the purpose of expropriating “amateur” athletes in the big time college sports setting, and giving hiring preferences to ex-athletes in employment contexts, but in the case of women’s athletics certain related arguments have a lot more merit.

Anyway, if you’re a basketball fan and haven’t gotten into the women’s game, or just a sports fan in general, you might want to check out Iowa’s semifinal and potential finals appearances on Friday and Sunday respectively.

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