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Caitlin Clark and Civil Society


March 6, 2024

When Larry Bird won his first National Basketball Association championship with the Boston Celtics in 1982, he made one of the best locker room interview comments ever.  Between puffs of a victory cigar, he said, “This one’s for Terre Haute.” He was literally referring to the Indiana city which had supported his Indiana State college team—but he might just as well have been referring to something bigger: the tradition—and culture—of basketball in Indiana. It’s a history rooted in 1891 Springfield, Mass. YMCA visit, when a Crawfordsville, Indiana minister named Nicholas Wade watched basketball’s inventor James Naismith teach the game. Wade brought the game back to the Hoosier state, where it put down deep roots. On a visit in 1925, Naismith himself attended the state’s already-storied high school tournament, started in 1911—later captured in the movie Hoosiers—and then wrote: “While the game was invented in Massachusetts, basketball really had its origin in Indiana, which remains the center of the sport.” It’s a truly American story: the YMCA, a civil society institution based in voluntarism and charitable support, giving  birth to an original sport which has spread around the world.

For her part, Caitlin Clark, upon setting the all-time college basketball scoring record this past weekend, might just as well have said, “This one’s for West Des Moines”—her hometown. Iowa has been for women’s basketball what the overall game as been in Indiana: another original tradition born in civil society. 

As Amy Lifson has written for the National Endowment for the Humanities journal, Humanities, it did not take federal legislation—Title IX—to draw female players into roundball. “Since the early 1900s,” she writes, “girls’ basketball has been played in Iowa.” As with the game in Indiana for boys, by 1920 there was a statewide Iowa girls’ tournament (featuring its own variation with six players on a side, three on each side of midcourt, a limit of two dribbles and three seconds in which to pass.) Per Lifson, the teams were “made up of teams of rural players whose families and small towns supported their athletic achievements with enthusiasm and pride. The idea that girls—who worked hard daily on their family farms—were too delicate to play sports wasn’t considered. “(The history is captured in an Iowa public television film, “More than a Game”.)

So deep did the game put down roots in the Hawkeye state that, by 1970, before Title IX’s passage in 1972, fully 20 percent of all female high school sports participants were Iowans—in a state with just one percent of the nation’s population.  Reflecting that tradition, the Des Moines Register, in 2018, published a list of the top 50 Iowa girls basketball stars of all time. Caitlin Clark, then a star at Des Moines’ Dowling Catholic, was already on their radar.

Just like basketball taking off in Indiana—and giving us Hall of Famers Larry Bird from French Lick and Oscar Robertson from Indianapolis—women’s basketball emerging in Iowa seems a mystery. Why there? The answer, of course, is that great American combination: individualism, egalitarianism, and localism. Who knows but that one father or mother, watching their daughter shoot a ball into a barn hoop, didn’t think: why not have girls play this game? Maybe they had family in Indiana. Local control matters, too: a small town high school with its own small gym would be free to choose its own sports (or curriculum, for that matter). 

This is not to gainsay Title IX. It’s wonderful to see so many girls in sports today.  But Iowa didn’t need a government prod—and that’s just as notable. By the way, Iowa was also a leader in women’s softball. There were 75 women’s professional teams by 1939—and two Iowa women played in the All American Girls Professional Baseball League on which the film “A League of Their Own” was based. 

I have no idea whether Caitlin Clark’s parents, who encouraged their daughter to the point of finding boys’ teams for which to play when she was young, were aware that girls basketball in the state dated to the early 20th century. More likely they just hoped that she’d lead Dowling Catholic to the state high school tournament championship. (Actually, she didn’t.) But whether the term civil society means anything to her or not, she has taken her place in a uniquely  American tradition. It makes perfect sense for Caitlin Clark to be from Iowa, just as it was right for Larry Bird to hail from Indiana.