FIVE YEARS OF CAITLIN CLARK AT IOWA? IT'S NOT IMPOSSIBLE

By Adam Jacobi on March 1, 2022 at 4:15 pm
Caitlin Clark and Lisa Bluder hold the Big Ten Championship trophy
© Joseph Cress/Iowa City Press-Citizen / USA TODAY NETWORK
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The Big Ten Player of the Year parade continues in Iowa City, as Caitlin Clark has been named the 2021-22 POTY by the conference. Even in a loaded conference, the selection was a no-brainer; Clark is one of two serious contenders for the national POTY this season with South Carolina's Aliyah Boston, and whoever's in third place is distantly so.

WNBA rules preclude players from joining the league draft until they're 22 (or it's otherwise been four years since their college graduation), so congratulations Hawkeye fans, regardless of how ready she is for the league, we've got two more seasons of the Caitlin Clark Show.

OR, as she's quick to point out — perhaps three years:

This is, of course, thanks to the NCAA's declaration that the COVID season (Clark's freshman year) doesn't count against eligibility, even though the stats and records do count. For athletes who are Planning To Go Pro In Something Other Than Sports™, it can be a great incentive to continue their academic careers, perhaps in graduate studies, and take one more shot at whatever they still want to accomplish in sports.

For an obvious future star like Clark though, it's a bit of a head-scratcher. You'd sooner expect her to petition the WNBA to allow early entry than to spend more time in college than necessary.

But it's not impossible — maybe not even implausible. Here's why.

NIL, NIL, NIL

Caitlin Clark is a transcendent basketball player with crossover appeal the likes of which we've frankly never seen from an Iowa women's player (and rarely seen with a men's player, for that matter — how often did LeBron or KD ever mention Luka Garza?). She doesn't just play ball, she performs in a way that's captivating to even the most casual of fans. Whatever the fabled "it" is, she has it.

And now that we live in a world where collegiate athletes have control of their name, image and likeness rights, Clark has the opportunity to capitalize on the attention she garners from basketball fans. Whatever the limit of her earning potential as an endorser is as a college player is, she's certainly not met it yet.

That said, it's worth pumping the brakes just a skosh on some speculation that it's in Clark's best financial interests to stay in Iowa City as long as possible. Yes, base rookie salaries in the WNBA aren't fantastic — but, you know, they can sign endorsement deals too. Also, they don't have to balance a college course load in with the basketball and business dealing. Only so many hours in a day, and that matters too.

But the best-case scenario with NIL deals from NCAA athletes' perspective isn't to compete and win financially against professional sports. It's to be good enough to keep athletes around. It's to provide an alternative to what might be an uninspiring professional market. And yes, it's to complement the access to education that the athletes are also compensated with. 

So sure, if this comes down to only money, being a professional basketball player will win out. Don't convince yourself otherwise. The gap is just easier to bridge now.

I just wanted to watch these highlights again. I bet you did too.

Things to hoist

One of the most commonly underestimated aspects of how elite athletes operate is the appeal of goals — tangible goals, not being the togetherest team or whatever they do over there. Obviously we don't know Clark personally or have definitive information on what hers are, but certainly she's in a position to target things like an outright Big Ten title and a Final Four run. Those are unmet milestones thus far, and while Iowa's absolutely a contender already this March, we're talking about a 4-seed at the moment. Iowa wouldn't be the first or last 4 to make the Women's Final Four, but, especially in a stratified sport like women's college ball, it's awfully difficult; the last team seeded fourth or lower to make the Final Four did so in 2016 — twice that year, in fact, both in 4-vs.-7 matchups.

Once you go pro, you go for good, and hopefully by the time Clark is allowed to do that, she'll have nothing left to prove or accomplish at this level. For a competitor like her though, if there's anything left on the table, don't be shocked if she takes one last opportunity to get it.

Hey, why not?

Above all else, Caitlin Clark's fifth year of eligibility is three years away. She gains nothing by closing that door this far in advance. Three years ago, we couldn't have predicted what shape the sporting world, much less the world as a whole, would be in. Maybe 2025 is great. Maybe it's worse! Maybe the WNBA is expanding and starved for talent, or maybe it's reeling from another scandalous round of chartered flights.

And maybe 2025 is Bluder's last season on the sidelines and Clark can't say no to one last ride. On the other hand, maybe that last season is 2024. Or maybe, hopefully, we've got another decade-plus with Bluder. We don't know these things yet, neither does Clark, neither does anybody.

So with that, we can back-burner this topic until well in the future. But when that time comes, no matter what happens, don't be too surprised. Let's just not take for granted what a special ride we've been on as Iowa basketball fans, and what's still yet to come.

Go Iowa Awesome.

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