This week has raised a question for me that I never thought possible: Do dudes not know how to talk about sports?

On the airwaves and in my own watercooler conversations with other guys, I’ve been surprised at how even men who love sports and competition seem totally tripped up when it comes to talking about the WNBA, especially Caitlin Clark.

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This week has — and not for the first time — exposed how ill equipped the average male sports commentator is when it comes to discussing women’s sports. ESPN’s Pat McAfee used a slur to talk about the rookie WNBA star. Former NBA star turned talking head Charles Barkley called spirited competition between women “petty.”

This weekend, the DMV is going to host two huge WNBA games, featuring Chicago Sky rookie and Baltimore native Angel Reese, and Clark, a rookie with the Indiana Fever. The Washington Mystics have moved both games to Capital One Arena in anticipation of the huge crowds they’ll draw — hopefully you already have a ticket, because otherwise it’s going to be pricey.

It’s great the WNBA is getting a surge of interest this season. It’s not so great that we — men, I’m really speaking to us here — still talk about the league as if we just discovered a new undeveloped civilization. And many of us are talking about it as if the normal rules of sports don’t apply.

In fact, the league has thrived for decades, with elite stars and furious competition that looks no different than any other top sports league, men or women.

Why is a hard foul in the NBA competing but a hard foul in the WNBA “petty”? We are caught in gender tropes when we talk about women trying to win. Suddenly talking trash or throwing elbows is about jealousy.

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“Plays like this happen in sports,” former No. 1 pick Chiney Ogwumike said on ESPN, “but now it’s being used to further agendas that don’t serve the game.”

Would we talk about men this way? Most likely not. And we wouldn’t use the kind of language McAfee used when he referred to Clark on TV as a “white b****.”

These athletes deserve a higher caliber of analysis. Namely, the “game” part seems to be getting lost in overly simplistic and insulting narratives — most of them coming from men’s lips.

Chennedy Carter’s hard foul on Clark — and Reese appearing to cheer at that moment — may be competitiveness gone amok, but it’s not exceptional treatment to Clark. It’s just life for a rookie trying to make her way in the pros, and stardom at that level is earned, not given.

“We love Caitlin Clark,” Aces coach Becky Hammon said last week. “I think she’s amazing. I watch every time I possibly can. Our league loves her. We’re just doing our job. We’re gonna show up, whoever’s on the other team is on the other team, we don’t really care, we’re gonna show up and do us.”

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The frustrating part is the men’s sports that we dissect for hours on barstools or in barbershops have always been hard-nosed proving grounds for hyped rookies. Michael Jordan had the “Jordan Rules” enforced by the Pistons. Bryce Harper got in fights over bat flips. LeBron James’ own Cavaliers teammates said he would have to prove himself.

The WNBA is no different. Take what happened to Reese, a college star and NCAA national champion. Former Terp Alyssa Thomas was ejected a week ago for pushing her to the ground, an incident that conspicuously did not inspire pearl-clutching newspaper editorials comparing basketball to assault. Reese, a relentless competitor, was fine with it — during the game and after.

“I want them to come at me every day; I want them to come at everybody,” Reese said at the time. “I mean, they’re not supposed to be nice to me.”

In the heat of competition, men talk trash, throw elbows and foul hard on non-basketball plays — we rarely derive motives like jealousy for this kind of intensity.

Why is the standard so different for women? This disconnect is absolutely bewildering and has led to the most toxic narratives around this WNBA season. It’s disrespectful to the league itself, and it does a disservice to Clark, who — besides being a fiery, in-your-face competitor herself — hasn’t gotten this far because her opponents took it easy on her.

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So pardon these women — and the people who have been watching this sport through its scrappier, leaner years — for not falling over in gratitude that Clark has arrived. And, as long as Barkley suggests that all her competitors should thank her less than a month into her pro career, it’s understandable that the fans who’ve been here will roll their eyes, too.

Stephen A. Smith may have been stunned by Monica McNutt’s suggestion that he could have been covering women’s sports for years before now, but give him credit. He at least brought an expert onto his show. In the viral clip of McAfee calling Clark a slur (he’s since apologized on social media), you can see five people on set, all of whom are men. They may be experts in reading TV ratings, but they don’t appear to be experts in the WNBA.

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ESPN analyst Elle Duncan hit the nail on the head during an appearance on “The Right Time with Bomani Jones” last week: “If you are new, and you don’t have the capacity yet to talk about storylines within the W because you just don’t know enough, that’s OK. It is OK. But what you shouldn’t do, just because you want to lend your voice to the conversation in general, is keep rehashing the same boring, tired, dumbass, tired storyline that all of these women are bitter and can’t stand Caitlin Clark.”

That sentiment wraps up the entire dilemma. The viewers just tuning in, many of us who are men, don’t have context for what we’re talking about, instead relying on tired, problematic narratives to navigate a sport we’ve just barely come to enjoy. We don’t even know how to talk around our ignorance, perhaps because we’re so used to sports being a landscape dominated by male voices.

Wrote Jemele Hill in The Atlantic: “When I hosted ESPN’s SportsCenter in 2017, any time I flubbed a name or statistic, legions of viewers would declare on social media that it was proof that women shouldn’t be discussing men’s sports. Men, by contrast, are allowed to laugh and even brag about how little they know about the women’s game.”

Men can be better. We talk about sports all the time. What if we treated the WNBA like a league that has been here all along instead of a curiosity, a novelty? What if we treated the competitors like competitors, the games like games? What if we respected that even the most ballyhooed, marketable stars still need to prove themselves against the best women in the world?

“It’s going to be interesting watching men migrating to this,” Jones said on his podcast with Duncan. “I think, for a lot of dudes, they don’t know how to talk about women in public doing the things that these women are doing.”

We have the language for talking about sports in this fashion. We just haven’t treated the WNBA with the same respect. It might be time to listen for a while.

Kyle joined The Baltimore Banner in 2023 as a sports columnist. He previously covered the L.A. Lakers for The Orange County Register and myriad sports at The Salt Lake Tribune. He’s a Mt. Hebron High and University of Maryland alum.

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