Louisiana State University defeated the University of Iowa in the 2023 NCAA women’s basketball tournament. The celebration of LSU’s first-ever national championship is being met with unfair criticism of Angel Reese, one of the team’s star players. Near the end of the game that LSU won 102-85, Reese first waved her hand in front of her face (a taunt WWE wrestler John Cena popularized to signify ‘you can’t see me’), she then pointed to her ring finger. The gesture was directed at Caitlin Clark, the Iowa Hawkeye’s leading scorer. Critics deemed the move unsportsmanlike.
Sports and political commentator Keith Olbermann referred to Reese as a “fucking idiot” in a tweet. He further argued, “doesn’t matter the gender, the sport, the background – you’re seconds away from a championship and you do something like this and overshadow all the good.” In addition, Barstool Sports founder David Portnoy tweeted “Classless piece of shit” in response to Reese’s gesture. Others on social media argued that Reese stalked Clark during the matchup. Some suggested the referees should’ve given Reese a technical foul.
The biggest problem with condemnations of Reese’s gesture is that Clark did the exact same thing in Iowa’s tournament win over the University of Louisville. It wasn’t a move that was somewhat or perhaps disputably similar – it was the exact same ‘you can’t see me’ hand motion. Most sports commentators and fans praised Clark for it. They didn’t criticize her like they did Reese. Even the taunt’s architect, Cena, tweeted a video of Clark along with the words, “Even if they could see you… they couldn’t guard you!” Why are so many people treating the two tournament ballers so differently? Here’s one explanation: Clark is white, Reese is Black.
In a postgame interview, Reese talked about how she’d been the target of double-standards throughout the season. She said the media and others told her that she’s “too hood, too ghetto.” Reese proudly declared that her championship game performance was for other women who look like her. North Carolina State University Professor Joy Gaston Gayles, an expert on intercollegiate athletics, maintains the way Reese is being treated is a clear example of anti-Blackness. “Angel’s response is a good representation of resistance to anti-Blackness. She’s intentionally deciding to be herself regardless of society’s refusal to recognize her humanity as a Black woman.”
Gayles further maintains, “to call any human a ‘classless piece of shit’ is never okay, but for a Black woman, it’s steeped in what Moya Bailey termed misogynoir: the unique and specific type of violence that happens to Black women at the intersection of racism, sexism, and anti-Blackness.” Gayles went on to explain. “Reese is experiencing the intended outcomes of misogynoir, which function to discredit her, subject her to heighten scrutiny, hold innocent a white woman, and ultimately misrepresent her as a threat to white women in college basketball.”
The threat to which Gayles refers isn’t about just any white woman. It’s about Clark, who made history during March Madness. With 191 points, she became the highest-scoring college basketball player of any gender in the history of the NCAA women’s and men’s tournaments. Therefore, Reese doing to Clark what Clark did to a Louisville player just days prior was likely interpreted as a petty Black woman unnecessarily disrespecting the tournament’s biggest star. But despite her individual success, Clark’s team lost the championship contest. Reese’s team won.
It’s worth noting that men taunt each other all the time in college sports in ways that are far more outrageous than the hand gesture that Clark and Reese both used throughout the tournament. But the women’s taunting disrupted sexist expectations of how they’re supposed to behave in sports. “We are socialized to understand femininity through a white-normed lens,” says Michigan State University Professor Dorinda Carter Andrews. “White women and girls are inherently viewed as sweet, gentle, and docile. Even when they perform ‘aggressive’ or ‘assertive’ acts, it’s not viewed as problematic.” Carter Andrews notes that when Black women behave in the same ways as white women, “they are perceived as barbaric and disrespectful. The standard for femininity is racialized in ways that penalize Black women and girls.”
Julie Rousseau, an Associate Athletic Director at the University of Southern California, has been a college basketball player, as well as a head coach of multiple college basketball programs and a WNBA team. “Here we are in 2023, with two highly competitive teams facing each other surrounded by a record-breaking crowd, and the spotlight quickly shifts to Angel Reese and the kind of bravado gesture that we have come to expect in men’s basketball, that Caitlyn Clark also exhibited in a previous game,” Rousseau observes. “Some called Angel’s gesture classless, but this term was misapplied to Angel when it more appropriately describes the response of media to Black women who play this game. It seems the press cannot resist promoting the racist trope when it finds itself incapable of acknowledging skill and pride expressed by all women, especially Black women.”