LSU forward Angel Reese possesses all the qualities one could dream of in a baller. She’s highly skilled, competitive, passionate and exuberant. She was a major catalyst behind LSU winning its first NCAA championship, defeating Iowa on April 2. For these reasons, she should be honored, but a loud few on social media decided to unleash their racism and sexism in an attempt to diminish a proud young Black woman.
By and large, championship game day was a memorable day for women’s basketball and women’s sports in general. Nearly 10 million people tuned in to ABC to watch the game. The moment that got everybody talking came in the final seconds of the game when Reese engaged in the “You Can’t See Me” gesture popularized by pro wrestler John Cena towards Iowa’s star player Caitlin Clark. It’s a gesture that Clark, who is white, herself used toward a Louisville player during the Elite Eight without any backlash.
Anyone who knows anything about sports knows that it is pure competitive fire behind certain gestures and nothing more.
But to Dave Portnoy at Barstool Sports, former ESPN anchor Keith Olberman and even First Lady Dr. Jill Biden it was a moment that they had an issue with. Either with something subtle, as was the case with Dr. Biden, who thought it was somehow appropriate to invite Iowa to the White House for the sake of “sportsmanship”, or with outright criticism in the case of Olberman and Portnoy.
Reese had to defend herself and other Black women in the face of such backlash.
“All year, I was critiqued about who I was. I don’t fit the narrative. I don’t fit in the box that you all want me to be in,” she said in the post-title game press conference. “I’m too hood, I’m too ghetto. You told me that all year. But when other people do it, y’all don’t say nothing. So this is for the girls that look like me, that want to speak up on what they believe in. It’s unapologetically you. It was bigger than me tonight. I’m happy. I felt I helped grow women’s basketball.”
This is yet another case of a proud Black woman in sports, and society for that matter, standing firm in their truth and being unapologetically bold.
For centuries, Black women and girls have been on the receiving end of racialized sexism where passion and exuberance is characterized as threatening, intimidating and unfeminine against the backdrop of the largely Eurocentric standards pertaining to femininity and womanhood.
The academic term for it is misogynoir, which was defined in 2010 by Northwestern University scholar Moya Bailey as “contempt and/or ingrained injustice towards Black women”.
Throughout sports, there have been Black women who have challenged societal ideologies with their style, which should be celebrated but is seen as threatening to tradition. Rose Robinson, Florence Griffith Joyner, Jackie Joyner Kersee, Venus and Serena Williams, Surya Bonaly, Naomi Osaka, Simone Biles and Brittney Griner are just some of the names of Black women athletes who have stood tall in their boldness and been on the receiving end of harsh treatment just for being themselves.
Dr. Jen Fry, a prominent social justice educator who has consulted with universities, athletic departments and the NCAA on matters of race, gender and class, told Swish Appeal that this moment with Reese speaks to those larger historical forces that are at play in the present day.
“We have to look at the landscape of what it means to be a Black woman showing your passion,” she said. “What Angel did was normal trash-talking in the game. Angel does the bottom line of a 1 through 10 and all of sudden she’s a horrible person.”
Fry sees the comments from Dr. Biden as being a “protection of white bodies” and taps into a historical precedent that was set in the men’s game with the “Hick from French Lick” himself, Larry Bird.
From his days at Indiana State to his illustrious career with the Boston Celtics in the NBA that included three titles and three MVPs, Bird was often characterized as the “great white hope” in a predominately Black league that was often seen through the lens of “classlessness” and “criminality”.
In other words, Bird was seen as bringing an innocence to the game that was supposedly lost. He was one of the most famous trash talkers the game had ever seen yet he was celebrated for it.
“He was ruthless and he was applauded, “ said Dr. Fry. “He talked more than Angel with her three-second hand in the face. It was a complete overblown reaction and the intersection of race and gender played a huge part.”
Similar to the situation with Bird, if it happened the other way with Iowa winning, there is a strong possibility that the same gesture made by Clark would be mimicked and heralded across the nation.
“Had Caitlin Clark won that national championship, everyone would have been doing that,” said Dr. Fry. “Angel Reese is unapologetically Black. The nails, the hair, and people do not like that … Who gets to decide what classy is? It continues the history. When you are aggressive, you set boundaries. They are trying to suppress Black women from being Black women.”
Change has been long overdue, but the timing for such change couldn’t be more perfect. Both Reese and Clark will be returning next year and the focus will be on them and their budding rivalry. They share similar characteristics and have the same desire to win at all costs.
When asked about what the NCAA should do in the aftermath of the title game, Dr. Fry put it simply.
“Not a damn thing. They need to give media rights to the women’s basketball tournament. Let us play with passion and trash talk. Giving money to the women’s basketball tournament.”
She also said that they should start hyping up the rivalry between Reese and Clark just as the men’s game has done so for centuries because history has proven that is what fans are attracted to. When it comes to promoting the games, she wants to see the women get the same air time as the men.
“We now need to start looking at evening out times for men’s and women’s basketball. We have to even out the opportunity to view the game. We have to make sure the games are on prime time. The easier you make it, the more people will watch.”
The recipe for success is there, it just needs to be baked in.
Bottom line: Angel Reese celebrating her personality is good for the women’s game.