Racism, sexism raise their ugly heads again during March Madness

Racism and sexism are ideologies that permeate every aspect of capitalist society. Not only do these ideologies exist to divide the multinational working class, but their impact can instill long-lasting trauma for people of color, and for women and gender oppressed people, especially when these oppressions intersect with each other. 

LSU players Flau’jae Johnson, Angel Reese and Hailey Van Lith speak at a March 31 conference.

Two incidents have occurred during the annual March Madness tournament — held to determine the champion for National Collegiate Athletic Association’s Division One women’s basketball — that drive home these realities. 

The Utah University team, scheduled to play a South Dakota State team in Spokane, Washington, on March 27, was assigned to stay in a Coeur d’Alene, Idaho, hotel 30 miles away from the tournament site, supposedly due to lack of hotel space in Spokane. As the team was leaving the hotel to eat dinner, white racists yelled from a car racist epithets toward the African American players, most notably the n-word.  

After the team finished dinner to head back to the hotel, these same racists, while revving their car’s engine, verbally assaulted the players again with racist taunts. A Confederate flag was draped on the car.

Once these incidents were reported to NCAA authorities, the Utah team was transferred to a hotel in Spokane. Why they didn’t stay in Spokane in the first place, knowing the history of ultraright, white supremacy in Idaho, is very suspicious.  

To say that the lives of these players were placed in danger is an understatement. Lynne Roberts, the Utah coach, stated at a March 27 press conference that her team was deeply troubled and shaken by the two incidents. 

As of this writing, none of the culprits have been identified by local authorities.

LSU team targeted by racism and sexism

The other incident involves the defending NCAA champion, the Louisiana State University women’s basketball team. Their star player is center Angel Reese, an unapologetic, trash-talking talented athlete, who is Black. Reese, who was named MVP following her team’s championship run in 2023, was criticized in the press and on social media in 2023 for taunting white Iowa star player Caitlin Clark following LSU’s victory. Clark also has a history of trash talking, which has flown under the radar screen. If she had made the same gestures towards Reese, would it have prompted the same response from sports writers?  (See “A double standard” editorial, workers.org/2023/04/70320/)

Trash talking amongst male players on opposite teams has always been accepted as a normal, acceptable part of any game. But when it comes to women players, trash talking, especially if a Black player is perceived as taunting a white player, is viewed in a negative light in the eyes of some white male sportswriters.

In a Los Angeles Times article entitled, “Commentary: UCLA-LSU is America’s sweethearts vs. its basketball villains,” first posted on March 29, a white sportswriter, Ben Bolch, characterized the LSU team as being “dirty debutantes,” and the local UCLA team as “milk and honey.” He also referred to the UCLA team as being “good” and the LSU team as being “evil.” (March 29)

The article was updated on March 31 with this editor’s note: “The original version of this commentary did not meet Times editorial standards. It has been edited to remove language that was inappropriate and offensive. We apologize to the LSU basketball program and to our readers.”  

Despite the removal of the disparaging comparisons between the two teams in the commentary, the damage had already been done.  

Bolch asked the question: “Do you prefer the team that wants to grow women’s basketball or the one seemingly hellbent on dividing it?” Clearly he was referring to the LSU team in the latter part of this question. The focus of his piece was aimed at Reese and her legendary coach Kim Mulkey, who publicly defended her players by labeling the article sexist.  

Bolch went on to write about Reese: “Mulkey’s best player also can’t get out of her own way. A year after she taunted Caitlin Clark by giving the Iowa superstar the ring finger and mocking Clark’s hand-waving gesture late in the national championship game, Angel Reese is at it again. When Middle Tennessee’s Anastasiia Boldyreva fouled out of a second-round loss to LSU, Reese waved goodbye as a crying Boldyreva headed to the bench.”  

Anti-racist teammate defends Black players

Hailey Van Lith, a white LSU guard, came to the defense of her Black teammates by saying the accusations in the LA Times against them are racist. She remarked: “We do have a lot of Black women on this team, and unfortunately, that bias does exist still today, and a lot of the people that are making those comments are being racist towards my teammates. I’m in a unique situation where I see with myself, I’ll talk trash and I’ll get a different reaction than if Angel [Reese] talks trash. I have a duty to my teammates to have their back. Some of the words that were used in that article were very sad and upsetting.”

Van Lith went on to say: “Calling us the dirty debutantes, that has nothing to do with sports. That’s not motivating. But in my opinion, I know for a fact that people see us differently because we do have a lot of Black women on our team who have an attitude and like to talk trash and people feel a way about it. At the end of the day, I’m rocking with them because they don’t let that change who they are. They stay true to themselves, and so I’ll have their back.” (ESPN, March 31)

Bolch apologized to the LSU team for his “offensive” column on April 1.  (ESPN)

Women’s college basketball has never enjoyed more popularity than today as the high ratings during the March Madness tournament indicate. This is not only because of the tremendous talent and skill that these players showcase but also because of the bodacious, confident attitude that they are not afraid to express on and off the court. This helps to counter any sexist and racist responses thrown in their way by the likes of bigoted sportswriters like Bolch.

LSU beat UCLA but was defeated by Iowa on April 1. Iowa will play UConn during the Final Four playoffs on April 5.

Monica Moorehead is the daughter of late basketball coach, Isaac T. Moorehead, who coached the Norfolk State University Spartans women’s basketball team to a Central Intercollegiate Athletic Association championship during the early 1980s.

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