You can root for Caitlin Clark without tearing other players down

It is possible to be fans of, or at least appreciate, more than one female athlete at a time.

You can think Caitlin Clark is the greatest thing to happen to women’s basketball and still be impressed with what Angel Reese brings to the game. You can want the women who laid the foundation for what the WNBA is now to get the credit they deserve and still recognize Clark is fueling unprecedented growth and attention for both the league and women’s sports.

Contrary to what society has conditioned you to believe, multiple women can have success at the same time and in the same space without it becoming a Hunger Games situation. They do not have to be pitted against each other, only one able to emerge deserving of the general public’s respect and admiration.

Not that you’d know this from the six weeks of the WNBA season. Or the last two years, really.

While acknowledging there also are troubling undercurrents of racism and homophobia involved, some of the discourse these days resembles “Mean Girls: WNBA edition.” The veterans hate Clark. Reese is jealous of her. No one is showing Clark, or the women who came before her, the proper gratitude.

For some fans, and some in the media who really ought to know better, it isn’t enough to root for someone. You have to root against her rivals at the same time. And not just root against. Denigrate and diminish so they don’t steal anyone else’s shine.

“This isn’t specific to sport, which I think is important to acknowledge. It’s such a common theme and common narrative throughout different industries and different timepoints, which means it’s larger than, `Oh, these two athletes are popular now,’” said Cheryl Cooky, a professor at Purdue University who studies the intersection of gender, sport and culture.

“This really is about maintaining patriarchal institutions and structures. It’s about our cultural anxieties about women. And women in powerful and successful positions,” Cooky said. “There’s also this sense of, `We can allow one. We have in our culture and patriarchal society space for one.’ If we have space for just one, she becomes the exception to the rule. It’s not perceived as a threat.

“But it's not just this one. It’s all these women that are powerful and successful and posing that sort of threat to the status quo.”

Sadly, this is not new. Practically from birth, girls and women are compared to one another in ways that require knocking others down to lift someone up. Who’s the prettiest? Who has the best clothes? Who’s part of the `in’ crowd?

It’s bad enough when we women engage in it ourselves. It’s far worse when we give permission for others to do it, too. Which is what we’re doing by giving these nonsensical narratives air and allowing a transformative time in women’s sports to be reduced to a soap opera.

Again, racism and homophobia are factors and it’s disingenuous to pretend they’re not. The dog whistles are being heard loud and clear in some of the most popular narratives. Like this notion that Clark has to be “protected” in a league where the majority of players are Black and a good number are queer. Or the demand that Clark’s contributions to the WNBA’s growth get primacy over the league’s long history of advocating for social justice and equality.

But so much of this is also simply what we do to women.

Go back to the days of Serena vs. Sharapova. Or the unseemly fascination with Anna Kournikova. We’ve reduced women to one-dimensional characters for so long, we don’t know how to treat women's sports, and the athletes who play them, normally.

We don't know how to treat them like we do men.

The WNBA is a physical league. The women who play in it are fierce competitors. They are playing, and behaving, like any other elite athletes. Yet it’s not enough to simply debate and discuss the sport, as we do with men’s sports, because we’ve never done that.

It has to be a blood sport, with a winner and a loser. And I don’t mean on the scoreboard.

“It’s part of a larger pattern,” Cooky said. “The legacy sports news media does not know how to cover women’s sports and doesn’t know how to do so without relying on these conventional, misogynistic tropes or narratives.”

And that, in turn, keeps women in their place: Out of the conversations they deserve and out of the spotlight they’ve earned.

“You’ve got to dig deep to find out what’s actually going on in the WNBA right now,” Cooky said. “So for the average fan, it allows them permission to dismiss the league. `If they can’t get their (stuff) together, why should I care about this sport?’ It gives the average fan, the average male fan, permission to not care without then being labeled sexist or misogynist. `They’re hating on women athletes, too! They’ve got their own drama so it’s not me!’

Clark’s Fever and Reese’s Sky play again Sunday, their third meeting of the season, and I have no faith the storylines from the game will be any more enlightened, or any more informed, than those from their previous meetings.

People are so dug in on their positions they can’t see they’re doing everyone a disservice. Including the athletes they think they're championing.

Follow USA TODAY Sports columnist Nancy Armour on social media @nrarmour.

This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: Caitlin Clark and WNBA players deserve better than they're getting