commentary + critique

from tamryn spruill

Caitlin Clark Is the Rightful Winner of the 2021 ESPY Award for Best College Female Athlete

Aug 3, 2021

When Paige Bueckers accepted her 2021 ESPY Award for Best College Female Athlete, she notably dedicated the honor to Black women in sports and beyond who systematically and routinely face unprecedented levels of discrimination and erasure. 

But it was Bueckers, not another female athlete, who brought the award home that night. 

Even before the 2020-21 NCAA season, Bueckers had been pegged as the next big phenom to play for the storied UConn Huskies. The No. 1 overall recruit out of Hopkins, Minn., Bueckers was expected to be Breanna Stewart incarnate, only in guard form. So, with the storyline decided, ESPN as the primary leader of sports conversations, focused on Bueckers to the exclusion of all others, just as they did with Sabrina Ionescu in 2019-20. 

Bueckers is an immensely talented basketball player, but she is young, unseasoned and not WNBA-ready despite last season’s chatter indicating otherwise. Beyond that, she did not dominate for the Huskies or outperform the rest of Division I women’s basketball,  but she received all of the attention bestowed on the anointed anyway. 

A look at a few key statistical categories shows where Bueckers stood in 2020-21 in relation to her Division I counterparts. 

It also underscores why, if ESPN was keen to honor a white freshman at the ESPYs, that player should have been Midwest rival Caitlin Clark (Iowa), not Bueckers.

Points Per Game

1 Caitlin Clark (Iowa), 26.6 

5 Ashley Joens (Iowa St.), 24.2 

7 Naz Hillmon (Michigan), 23.9 

13 Chelsea Dungee (Arkansas), 22.3 

29 Paige Bueckers (UConn), 20.0 

Assists Per Game

1 Tiana Mangakahia (Syracuse), 7.2 

2 Caitlin Clark (Iowa), 7.1 

8 DiDi Richards (Baylor), 6.3 

10 Ashley Owusu (Maryland), 5.9 

14 Paige Bueckers (UConn), 5.8 

Rebounds Per Game

1 Natalie Kucowkski (Lafayette), 13.3 

2 Unique Thompson (Auburn), 12.8 

8 Natasha Mack (Oklahoma St.), 12.4 

13 Aliyah Boston (S. Carolina), 11.5 

* Paige Bueckers (UConn), 4.9 

Steals Per Game

1 Veronica Burton (Northwestern), 3.84

8 Lexi Held (DePaul), 3.12

10 Tekia Mack (Rutgers), 3.00

35 Aari McDonald (Arizona), 2.63

79 Paige Bueckers (UConn), 2.28

Field-Goal Percentage

1 Monika Czinano (Iowa), 66.84

15 NaLyssa Smith (Baylor), 56.07

16 Olivia Nelson-Ododa (UConn), 55.88

20 Haley Jones (Stanford), 54.63

35 Paige Bueckers (UConn), 52.36

3-Point Shooting Percentage

1 Katie Benzen (Maryland), 50.00

2 Aleah Goodman (Oregon St.), 48.98

3 Mary Crompton (Illinois St.), 46.72

4 Paige Bueckers (UConn), 46.38

5 Sam Lewis (Fairfield), 46.05

*Below the top 250 players/unranked.
Source: NCAA.com/stats

 

Ranking in the top 10 in only one statistical category (3-point shooting percentage), Bueckers went on to rake in all the trophies in 2021: Wooden Award, Naismith Trophy, AP Player of the Year, USBWA Player and Freshman of the Year, WBCA Freshman of the Year, so on and so forth. And she won them all over Clark, whose statistics backed up the hype. 

So, how did Bueckers come into all this winning? Was she a double-double machine? 

Not even close. 

The NCAA includes stats for the 50-best double-double records for the 2020-21 college season, and Bueckers is not on the list. Some of the notable divas of the double-double (and the number of double-doubles they tallied in 2020-21), however, are:

  • Alexus Dye (Troy), 23
  • Charli Collier (Texas), 19
  • Aliyah Boston (S. Carolina), 17
  • N’dea Jones (Texas A&M), 16
  • Unique Thompson (Auburn), 16
  • Esmery Martinez (W. Virginia), 15
  • Ashley Joens (Iowa State), 13
  • Rennia Davis (Tennessee), 10

But Bueckers must have been a triple-double monster, right?

Wrong again. 

Only 13 players in the 2020-21 NCAA season recorded a triple-double and none are named Paige Bueckers. Caitlin Clark, however, recorded one, and she is the only freshman to do so in 2020-21, which makes her a titan of the trip-doub, in our book. And Clark is joined by Aliyah Boston (S. Carolina), Tamari Key (Tennessee), Charisma Osborne (UCLA) and Arella Guirantes (Rutgers) on the superb list. 

And there is one player who stands out even from this elite pack: Grace Berger (Indiana), who recorded three triple-doubles in 2020-21. 

After raking in all the awards, including the espnW Player of the Year and Freshman of the Year trophies, Bueckers was awarded yet another: an ESPY in July for Best College Female Athlete. And in similar fashion to the Huskies’ overblown presence on the USA Basketball Olympic team, when it comes to ESPN’s ESPY awards, UConn also reigns supreme. 

Since the Best College Female Athlete category was introduced into the ESPYs in 2002: 

  • Players from UConn have won it nine times: Sue Bird (2002), Diana Taurasi (2003, 2004), Maya Moore (2009, 2010, 2011) and Breanna Stewart (2014, 2016);
  • One Texas Longhorn female athlete has won it twice: Cat Osterman, softball (2005, 2006);
  • Brittney Griner is the only female athlete from Baylor to win it, doing it twice in 2012 and 2013; 
  • Candace Parker (Tennessee) won it once (2008); and
  • Taryne Mowatt, softball (Arizona), Missy Franklin, swimming (California), and Kelly Barhhill (Florida), softball, won ESPYs in 2008, 2015 and 2017, respectively. 

In short, it appears that for a female basketball player to win an ESPY, she must come out of UConn, as illustrated by the fact that only two female basketball players from other programs — Parker and Griner — have won it. And this is not the case for the Best College Male Athlete ESPY, where the distribution has been split primarily between football and basketball, with a range of programs represented. 

The most any program has been represented on the men’s side is twice, when football players Matt Leinert and Reggie Bush of USC won an ESPY each in 2005 and 2006, respectively, and Florida, when Tim Tebow (also football) won an ESPY in 2008 and 2009. Moreover, male athletes have represented some 13 programs in ESPY awards, including Connecticut. So, what is the reason for the lopsided award system benefitting women’s basketball players from UConn? 

One reason could be the lack of committed coverage of women’s sports. If the “world leader” in sports hires just a handful of reporters to cover all of Division I women’s basketball, there are only so many conferences and/or programs that can be given attention by such limited human resources. The result is a glut of contrived storylines based on who the news creators want to see amplified on their platforms. 

And, unlike in men’s sports, the preference for the newsrooms — still dominated by white men — has been to amplify white women athletes who have either a “girl next door” appeal or overt heteronormative sex appeal. But if ESPN had done its homework, decision-makers would have noticed that another white basketball player had actually earned the award: Clark, whose hair happens to be brunette, unlike Bueckers’ blonde. 

This is not to say Bueckers was picked for her appearance or that she is not a good basketball player. It is to say that intrinsic bias is a bitch and ESPN maintains a racially-toxic work environment that makes it impossible to expect fairness and objectivity for the ESPYs when its culture is based on neither.

And ESPN’s culture also lacks transparency, a matter made worse by its choice to end its public editor position in 2018. Had ESPN continued the position, one designed to ensure accountability, perhaps the network would have been forced to explain why it got rid of the ESPY for Best College Female Athlete in 2018 and brought it back in 2021, just in time for Bueckers. It’s as if it canceled the award after Stewart’s UConn tenure and brought it back in time for Bueckers’ arrival to Geno Auriemma’s program. 

Had the Best College Female Athlete award been given in those years, voters would have had a pool of marquee players to choose from, though they happened to come out of schools other than UConn, whose stats and teams’ successes deemed them worthy:

2018 — Megan Gustafson (Iowa), A’ja Wilson (S. Carolina), Teaira McCowan (Mississippi St.)

2019 — Stella Johnson (Rider), Natasha Mack (Oklahoma St.), Ashley Joens (Iowa St.)

2020 — Naz Hillmon (Michigan), Sabrina Ionescu (Oregon), Chelsey Perry (UT Martin)

ESPN also did not award ESPYs for Best College Male Athlete in 2018, 2019 and 2020, but the point is moot considering that the condensed Best College Athlete ESPY given out in those years went to men: Baker Mayfield (Oklahoma) in 2018 and Zion Williamson (Duke) in 2020.

Due to the pandemic, the virtual ESPYs ceremony in 2020 dispensed with the awards for athletic performance and awarded trophies only in honorary categories.