Angel Reese has come under fire for displaying the same sportsmanship accepted from other players like Caitlin Clark. Credit: Justin Tafoya/NCAA Photos via Getty Images
It didn’t begin with a hand gesture. Long before the closing seconds of the NCAA Women’s Basketball Championship game, when Louisiana State University (LSU) star player Angel Reese raised the “you can’t see me” hand wave to Iowa player Caitlin Clark, sparking a torrent of rebuke on social media for her “poor” sportsmanship, anti-Black bubbles were already coming to the surface.
It began in the lead-up to LSU’s Final Four contest with South Carolina, a team noted for its tough play. Clark, a highly decorated junior, the Naismith College and AP Player of the Year and this year’s John R. Wooden Award winner, downed 41 points to achieve the NCAA Tournament’s first 40-point triple-double and raise her team to the next round, thereby allowing her to burst onto the mainstream sports landscape. While her performance became a key story from the game, a post-game interview with South Carolina head coach Dawn Staley sparked controversy.
Asked by a reporter about her team’s style of play, Staley responded, “Some of the people in the media, when you’re gathering in public, you’re saying things about our team and you’re being heard. And it’s being brought back to me, OK?” She continued, “We’re not thugs. We’re not monkeys. We’re not street fighters. This team exemplifies how you need to approach basketball, on the court and off the court. And I do think that that’s sometimes brought into the game, and it hurts.”
Those words, a rebuke of the racist and misogynoir coverage of her team, words by the media that clearly posed her mostly Black team as unprofessional in comparison to the mostly white Iowa team, would roar back in stunning rapidity to Reese.
The furor met by Reese, mostly from white critics, such as Keith Olbermann(Opens in a new tab), is emblematic of the pervasive dehumanization of Black folks that was supposedly negated by white people assigning themselves reading lists during the height of the Black Lives Matter movement. It’s a familiar image of gender inequality, white fragility, anti-Black rhetoric, and Black erasure played out on social media and in the White House.
Tweet may have been deleted (opens in a new tab) (Opens in a new tab) Tweet may have been deleted (opens in a new tab) (Opens in a new tab) Sports is a fraught road for women.It’s almost laughably ironic that Reese’s firebrand gesture originally found cultural prominence in the hands of a white man. For those who don’t know, the “you can’t see me” wave was a calling card of WWE wrestler John Cena, who used Black aesthetics — a backwards baseball cap, long jean shorts, a literal chain necklace — and the language of hip-hop, to rise to superstardom. Since then, its usage has proliferated in popular culture, particularly in sports. While the NFL and NBA have rules that punish taunting, it’s also an act that’s inextricably part of the entertainment value integral to the game.
Taunting furthers narratives and rivalries between players and even fosters passion to either hate or cheer for said athlete on the part of the fans. It’s a celebrated tradition of gamesmanship…unless you’re a woman. The double standard inherent of being a woman athlete is as American as apple pie: The ballplayers in the All-American Girls Professional Baseball League (which ran from 1943-1954) were required to maintain feminine standards(Opens in a new tab) in public and in private(Opens in a new tab) by agreeing to wear skirts for uniforms, take etiquette classes, and never wear their hair short or smoke or drink in public.
Athletes in the WNBA were also expected to present themselves as reductively feminine. This led to lesbian ballplayers remaining closeted(Opens in a new tab) for fear of losing their careers and damaging the league. In American sports, if a woman decides to move outside of the strict gender normative boundaries imposed by men she is ridiculed, punished, erased, and debased.
It’s a big reason why women’s sports often receive less financial and municipal support and attention. WNBA players have discussed how the majority of the league being LGBTQ and Black has caused homophobia and misogynoir to impede the game’s popularity. “And on top of that, that trope — that whole ‘butch lesbian, I-hate-men’ trope — is something that’s been used for decades to get women not to play sports, to get women to stay home,” WNBA player Imani McGee-Stafford told Andscape(Opens in a new tab).
Who is Angel Reese?The depressed popularity of women’s sports is why, before the NCAA Women’s Basketball Championship game, very few of the people who criticized Reese on social media or across the nation knew who she was, even though her accomplishments this past season — as a Southeastern Conference (SEC) All-Defensive Team, First-team All-SEC, and unanimous First-team All-American selection — should have positioned her as an immediate star. It’s a strange turn of events, then, to think about how the “you can’t see me” gesture is what catapulted Reese toward being visible on the national stage.
In the face of misogynoir, however, she was not seen as a young, talented woman hailing from Maryland and positioned as a leader on her team — or a champion. She instead was dubbed a “Bayou Barbie(Opens in a new tab),” morphed into a classless thug who dared display her excitement, her jubilation, and confidence to a white woman. For many, seeing a white athlete, one hoisted as a national darling, defeated by a Black woman was horror enough. But to see a Black person take glee in her victory? That was a bridge too far. For her part, Clark told ESPN’s Outside the Lines that Reese “should never be criticized for what she did. I competed, she competed.”
The double standard has been apparent throughout the tournament: Clark, a noted trash talker, was lauded when she similarly used the “you can’t see me” hand gesture in a game against Louisville. Even Cena approved(Opens in a new tab).
It’s also telling that Iowa’s head coach Lisa Bluder was the one who likened playing South Carolina to going into a bar fight, the comments Staley criticized in her post-game interview. Rather than interrogate her own words, Bluder disregarded Staley’s criticism(Opens in a new tab). While some in the national media pursued the story, it didn’t stop Clark and Iowa heading into the championship game to ascend as the country’s feel-good story. Nor was it taken into account when Reese’s “you can’t see me” sent shockwaves across social media. Instead, many hung the albatross of victimhood around a mostly white Iowa team.
The White (fragility) House steps in.In the immediate aftermath of Iowa’s loss, white fragility also sprang from the White House when first lady Jill Biden offered the idea of inviting Iowa to the White House too. The practice of championship teams visiting the nation’s capital can be traced back to 1963, when John F. Kennedy invited the Boston Celtics. It’s an honor only reserved for winning squads. So when Biden threw out the proposal to Iowa, the losing team, it appeared to be another instance of white fragility leading to the erasure of Black achievement.
Was Biden so enamored by the popularity of Clark that she mindlessly shirked tradition? That would be a generous interpretation of her proposition. Even if that were true, however, it doesn’t negate the fact that she had Clark’s feelings on her mind and not how her words might cause LSU to feel abandoned and erased.
While the first lady did walk back the comments, Reese wasn’t buying it. “I don’t accept the apology because you said what you said… You can’t go back on certain things that you say… They can have that spotlight. We’ll go to the Obamas’. We’ll go see Michelle. We’ll see Barack,” she told the I AM ATHLETE(Opens in a new tab) podcast.
Reese also didn’t want LSU to make the customary visit to the White House. The school has said they will accept the invite(Opens in a new tab), which opens more questions: Shouldn’t the institution stand behind one of its students when they’ve clearly been insulted? Is respectability politics, the fear of criticizing the first lady, really worth more than the emotional and mental well-being of their student-athlete?
Ultimately, Reese decided that, as team captain, she would accept the invitation after all, but she made it clear it was still a sore spot.
“In the beginning we were hurt — it was emotional because we know how hard we worked all year for everything,” Reese told SportsCenter(Opens in a new tab). “You don’t get that experience ever, and I know my team probably wants to go for sure and my coaches are supportive of that, so I’m going to do what’s best for the team and we’ve decided we’re going to go. I’m a team player. I’m going to do what’s best for the team.”
Maybe one of the lessons in all of this is a need for a separation of sports and state. The image of politicians inviting athletes to the White House, in a bid to confer their political approval in exchange for cultural cache, reeks of gladiatorial times, when the emperor bestowed their attention upon the person who recently laid their body on the line for their entertainment. It’s a transaction that only allows the politician to profit; apart from a memory, the athlete receives little from it.
A proximity to greatness isn’t solely a political desire either. We all like to associate ourselves with winners: from people posing for pictures with Oscar statuettes they didn’t win, to rabid celebrity fandoms, to fervent sport allegiances. Culturally we’ve made other people’s victories a reflection of our national prestige, our morality, our self-righteousness, our self-worth, our racial pride. We’ve made their losses a mirror of our wounded pride too, our neglect and our deferred dreams.
For the athletes, particularly student-athletes, it ain’t that deep. It’s telling that Clark didn’t feel jilted by Reese’s gesture, that Iowa wasn’t asking to visit the White House, that the only people offended by the outcome of the game were racist white people aghast by a blow to their white confidence.
It’s worth returning to Staley’s post-game press conference. “If you really knew them, if you really knew them, like you really want to know other players that represent this game, you would think differently. So don’t judge us by the color of our skin. Judge us by how we approach the game,” said the South Carolina coach.
Reese is still waiting to be judged on her own merits, on her approach to what sports should be: as not just there to build legacies, but to build character and lifelong bonds and friendships among teammates, to work diligently to achieve a singular goal, and to celebrate your victories while processing your defeats.
Reese is a national champion. It shouldn’t feel like she’s the only one who lost.
Robert Daniels is a film critic with bylines in The New York Times, LA Times, RogerEbert.com(Opens in a new tab), IndieWire and so forth. He has written widely about Black American pop culture and representation in film and television.
By signing up to the Mashable newsletter you agree to receive electronic communications from Mashable that may sometimes include advertisements or sponsored content.