On April 1, the Louisiana State University (LSU) Tigers women’s basketball team won its first 2023 NCAA championship, after trouncing, by double figures, the University of Iowa Hawkeyes. What made this game significant was that it attracted the most viewers for any college women’s basketball championship to date — 9.9 million. Also Caitlin Clark, Iowa’s guard, had just been named AP’s player of the year for the regular season.
What was not lost to anyone paying attention is that the Tigers team is predominantly Black, and the Iowa team has only one player of color. The LSU players noticed this, especially Angel Reese, the 6-foot-3 power forward, who was named Most Outstanding Player during the Final Four playoffs. Reese recorded 38 doubles (10 or more rebounds and points scored — in multiple games).
Days before the championship game, all the Tigers heard from the media, 24/7, was how great a player Clark is and can any team stop her. The Tigers were not predicted to make the Final Four, much less the championship round.
Once it became clear the Tigers would win the game, Reese took the opportunity to show Clark her “hand,” a gesture to show that a person should be seen, not ignored. Reese then pointed to her fourth finger to show that she will be receiving a championship ring, not Clark.
Reese was giving Clark a dose of her own medicine, since Clark made a similar hand gesture toward a Louisville Cardinal player in a previous game.
Reese received negative backlash on social media, where sports reporters accused her of being “a classless piece of sh_t” and even referred to her as a “f_cking idiot.”
Racism: the underlying factor
Reese responded to the insults at the victory podium: “All year, I was critiqued for who I was. I don’t fit the narrative; I don’t fit the box that y’all want me to be in. I’m too hood. I’m too ghetto. Y’all told me that all year. But when other people do it [hand gesture], and y’all don’t say nothing.
“So this is for the girls that look like me. For those that want to speak up for what they believe in. It’s unapologetically you. And that’s why I did it tonight. It was bigger than me tonight. And Twitter is going to go into a rage every time.
“And I’m happy. I feel like I’ve helped grow women’s basketball this year. I’m looking forward to celebrating and then next season.” (CNN, April 3)
And then to add insult to injury, First Lady Jill Biden stated publicly that besides the LSU team being invited to the White House, that the Iowa team should also be invited, because they played “good.”
It has been a White House tradition to invite the championship team of each major sport, pro or amateur, not the runner-up. Reese called Biden’s comment “a joke” and initially stated that neither she or the team will be coming to the White House, and as an alternative, the team will instead “visit the Obamas.” That reaction has since been retracted, along with Biden’s invite to the Iowa team. But the damage had already been done.
Never before had it been raised that a losing team visits the White House. Only now, when a predominantly white team lost, was it considered. Over 40% of NCAA Division I women basketball players are African American.
To her credit, Clark came to Reese’s defense, saying that she did not deserve the criticism.
The bottom line is the major issue of racism. When it comes to how Black and white players are treated, there has always been a double standard in U.S. society. When Clark used the same hand gesture Reese did, she received no criticism. Meanwhile Reese was painted as a “taunter.”
Sexism also plays a role, since women players are described negatively if they “trash talk.” This behavior is totally accepted for male players.
North Carolina State University Professor Joy Gaston Gayles, an expert on intercollegiate athletics, states: “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.”
Gaston Gayles continued: “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.” (Forbes, April 3)
Since she led LSU to winning the championship, Angel Reese has reached more than 3 million followers on Instagram and TikTok combined.