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Your greatest legacy? She brought respect to women's sports

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Caitlin Clark's greatest legacy? It won't be her many records, but the respect she brought to women's sports around the world.

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CLEVELAND – There are athletes so transcendent, whose impact is so transformative, that their sports will forever be defined by the before and after.

There is baseball before and after Babe Ruth. Golf before and after Arnold Palmer and Jack Nicklaus and then again before and after Tiger Woods. Basketball before and after Magic Johnson and Larry Bird.

And there will be basketball before and after Caitlin Clark, whose college career ended Sunday with an 87-75 loss to South Carolina in the national championship game. She changed both her game and the way women's sports as a whole are viewed very much for the better, and neither will ever be the same.

“I don’t think you ever take it for granted,” Clark said on the first weekend of the tournament. “I hope it continues to grow across the board, especially once I'm done playing here in college.

“You see this not just in Iowa, but across the country. It’s difficult to get access to women’s basketball games, and that’s exactly how it should be,” she continued. “It should have been like that a long time ago.”

Of course she's not wrong. All it took was the passage of Title IX in 1972 to ensure that the doors to gyms and playing fields across America were open to girls and women, and the fight for justice – in pay, funding and facilities – continues.

Interest and opportunities have increased, but progress has been slow. Often annoying. Groundbreaking moments, such as the advent of the WNBA in 1997 or the U.S. Women's World Cup victory in 1999, led to a surge in popularity but did not result in sustained growth. Women's sports still had to fight for media exposure and public respect.

OPINION: Caitlin Clark and Iowa have no advantage in the NCAA Tournament round despite being a No. 1 seed

Before and just after COVID, there were encouraging signs that maybe, just maybe, significant change was coming. Rising ratings for the WNBA and NWSL. Owners in both leagues who viewed and treated their franchises as worthwhile investments rather than charitable projects. A groundbreaking contract for the USWNT that guaranteed equal pay.

And then came the Clark tsunami.

An average of 5.5 million people watched Iowa's victory over undefeated South Carolina in the 2023 Final Four and were mesmerized by their logo 3s and all-out trash talk. Nearly 13 million watched the title game, where Angel Reese and LSU gave Clark and Iowa as much as they could.

Clark's assault on the record books ensured that interest would remain high this season, but few could have predicted it The. Iowa played to sold-out arenas at almost every home and away game. Each seemed to set a new ratings record, culminating on Monday night with 12.3 million people tuning in to watch the rematch between Iowa and LSU, this time for a trip to the Final Four.

That 12.3 million was the second-largest number of viewers to watch a basketball game since 2012, whether professional or college, men's or women's. It also outperformed all but a single college football game last season.

Thanks to her ads for State Farm, Clark has also become a commercial star, appearing in living rooms and bars across the country. When she passed Pete Maravich for the all-time record, Nike put up not one, but two billboards in Iowa City to celebrate her.

“Your crown is heavy,” Iowa coach Lisa Bluder said after the second round.

But Clark carried it with ease, recognizing the magnitude of this moment. Not just for her, but for every woman who came before her and all who will come after her.

She is aware that as long as she is in the spotlight, other players will also be affected. Your teammates. Reese. USC's JuJu Watkins. UConn's Paige Bueckers. And on and on. Clark also knows how important it is that the little girls who wear her jersey and scream for her autograph have a role model – not to mention the little boys who do the same and now will never see a time when This was not the norm for female athletes.

“I just remember growing up and never watching women’s basketball games on TV. You haven't really heard of the WNBA. I looked up to the male players,” said LSU guard Hailey Van Lith, perhaps best known as the player on the other end of Clark’s “You can’t see me” gesture during last year’s tournament, when Van Lith was still there was Louisville.

“Today, young girls can see themselves in other athletes. We're on TV. We're in their faces. They can identify with us,” Van Lith added. “I think this is really special.”

The ridicule of women's sports and the disdain for female athletes have largely ended. The surviving Neanderthals are now seen more as relics of the past than as clever comedians.

This is Clark's true legacy.

The goal tally, the Player of the Year award – all of that is nice. But it's the silencing of the “Nobody cares about women's sports!” peanut gallery and demanding long-overdue respect for women's sports and the athletes who play them that will resonate long after Clark's competition.

“I hope they remember how we made them feel, how we brought joy into their lives, how we gave their families something to scream about on TV on the weekends. I hope these are the biggest things that people remember,” Clark said Thursday. “I hope all the little boys and girls remember the joy with which we played and how we took ten seconds to give them an autograph and that inspired them to be what they want to be.”

There is the time before Caitlin Clark. We are even happier that she has banished this dark age of the past, one Logo 3 and one ratings record at a time.

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