OPINION: My team faced Caitlin Clark in the NCAA Tournament. Here's why fans are being too hard on her.

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It's likely not easy being Iowa women's basketball star Caitlin Clark.

Don't get me wrong -- the perks of being a household name like Clark are surely great. It's near-impossible to catch a game of this year's NCAA Women's Basketball Tournament without seeing Clark pop up in a commercial. State Farm, Xfinity, and Gatorade are among the national brands she has partnered with.

And surely, achieving goals such as becoming the NCAA all-time leading scorer regardless of gender must be gratifying. It's a level of success that most reading this -- and I writing, as well -- will never achieve athletically.

But there's a dark side to the fame as well. And the closer I paid attention this week, the harder it was to ignore.

You see, I grew up a West Virginia sports fan -- my dad was also a fan, and blue-and-gold sort of runs in the family. Despite WVU men's basketball being a top-20 program all-time in terms of wins, the Mountaineers suffered a historically bad season this winter -- they would rack up the most losses in program history.

So it was nice to have at least one team on the hardwood to cheer for this season as WVU women's basketball earned an NCAA Tournament bid. And it was even more exciting as a fan when they drew a matchup with Clark and the No. 1-seed Hawkeyes in the second-round of action. Many of us knew there would be plenty of folks watching our women's program as they attempted to pull off the ultimate upset.

This past Monday, the matchup I had eagerly awaited for came around, and it did indeed see a brand-new record set for pre-Final Four women's tournament viewers as many expected. Clark and her team faced a tough battle, but eventually won 64-54 -- although many who watched felt that the referees favored Iowa in the matchup.

Clark obviously cannot control the referees assigned to her game and whether or not they appear to favor her on the court. Yet she earned a lot of heat following the game for the disparity in fouls called during the game. And while it's clear that isn't a fair criticism to levy against the woman without a whistle in her hand to begin with, the criticism proceeded to get much worse.

I quickly saw both fellow West Virginia fans as well unbiased observers levy vitriol and hate towards Clark. At best, fans described her as a "ball-hog" who "shot too often." She was also berated by many fans for her trash-talk and fiery attitude in the heat of an NCAA Tournament game. In one of the lowest moments I've felt as a Mountaineer, I saw proud WVU supporters describe Clark as a "thug" and "crybaby."

Now, I won't share these hateful social media posts. I don't care to spread that type of discourse and allow those sharing it to get attention for it. Though I will admit there are many fans of my team with large social media presences that I lost a bit of respect for over the past week of Caitlin Clark posting.

To me, the hate is at best misinformed criticisms based on limited time watching Clark play. At it's worse, it's a clear sign of ignorance and misogyny from a society unwilling to accept that women's basketball and it's stars have every ounce of talent as their men counterparts, and deserve praise and respect.

Clark's impact on women's basketball cannot be denied. She has brought a sport previously widely ignored to the forefront of sports discussion, and has inspired countless young women to pursue their dreams.

But when she brings passion to the floor in the form of fiery interactions with the crowd, officials, and opposing players, she gets slammed as classless. But as this 2023 column in the Austin American-Statesman points out, the trash-talk that Clark or LSU counterpart Angel Reese bring to the hardwood earns slander while male NBA starts such as Patrick Beverly bring the same energy and never get a second look. For a more dialed-in WVU comparison, fans love to share the meme of the moment that former Mountaineer Erik Stevenson grabbed his crotch while staring down NBA star Marcus Smart in the crowd, despite the fact that it ended up helping cost WVU the 2023 game in which the taunt occurred.

As for the accusations that all Clark does is shoot and hog the ball, they also feel like a dog whistle. The truth about Clark is that she is also one of the most gifted passers and distributors among both men and women that currently play collegiate ball. Clark led the nation in assists this season with 8.8 per game -- 1.5 more per game than the next player behind her. She also is third all-time in NCAA women's basketball in total assists, and just today she recorded 15 assists in a Sweet 16 win over Colorado.

Whether you attribute the recent hate to pure misogyny or just uninformed hot takes from armchair fans, the end result is the same. This young woman, who has become the face of a sport and inspiration to female athletes across the nation, is facing a lot more hatred than is needed -- and most of it is quite baseless in actuality. And trust me when I say that Clark may not see or even care about those criticisms levied at her -- but your daughter, little sister, and young female friends certainly will.

So as Clark's name continues to feature prominently in sports media over the next week as she attempts to close her collegiate career with a championship ring, I have a request of any fan who reads this -- particularly those that have let the recent negative discussion on Clark define their view of a tremendous athlete.

Take a minute to re-evaluate Clark's film. Re-evaluate her stats. And most importantly, re-evaluate the energy she brings to court and the impact she's had on women's basketball. And maybe do it through the lens you'd normally view LeBron James or Steph Curry. I think once more folks do that, this nasty rhetoric about Clark can die down.

Because above all else that I find to be true about Caitlin Clark, I believe is that she deserves a fairer shake than she is getting from the basketball world.