On Sunday, the two most recognizable college basketball stars in the country, LSU’s Angel Reese and Iowa’s Caitlin Clark, faced off in a game to determine the national championship.
Near the end of the game, with her team on the verge of victory, Reese waved her palm in front of her face — a boastful gesture popularized by the WWE’s John Cena, who defined it to mean “you can’t see me” — while gazing in the direction of Clark.
The act triggered a wave of outrage among a certain subset of sports fans on social media who denounced Reese as “classless.” That outrage then sparked a swift backlash pointing out that Reese was merely echoing a gesture that Clark herself had used in each of her two previous games in the tournament. Reese is Black, Clark is white. Those who venerated Clark while denigrating Reese perpetuated an age-old trope in sports: White players who show emotion tend to be praised for how much they care about the game, while Black players who show emotion tend to get criticized for lacking discipline and disrespecting opponents. In the New York Times article about the game, Reese “starred and talked trash,” while Clark “caught the attention of the country with … her visible emoting in celebration, frustration and competitive passion.” Clark’s performance was apparently so inspirational that first lady Jill Biden suggested that perhaps both LSU and Iowa should receive invites to the White House, even though those visits have traditionally been granted only to championship-winning teams. Reese laughed off the idea in a tweet yesterday.
At her postgame press conference on Sunday, she alluded to the double standard. “When other people do it, y’all don’t say nothing,” she said of her much-discussed celebration. “So, this is for girls who look like me.”
Double standards, political subtext, and ideological signaling are nothing new in the sports world, where support for certain players and teams often carry loaded meanings. ESPN analyst and former pro basketball player Kendrick Perkins recently suggested that white media members voting on the NBA MVP award were more likely to select Nikola Jokić, who was born in Serbia, than Joel Embiid, who was born in Cameroon, because he looked more like them. In 2003, Rush Limbaugh was forced to resign from ESPN’s NFL pregame show after he claimed that football reporters and analysts were overstating Donovan McNabb’s talent because they were desperate to see a Black quarterback succeed. These days, if you’re curious about a sports fan’s place on the anti-racism spectrum but don’t want to delve into uncomfortable discussions on actual politics, just ask what they think about Lamar Jackson’s contract situation.
This year’s women’s college basketball title game presented about as explicit of a racial Rorschach test as any the sports gods have conjured. Nearly all of LSU’s players are Black, while nearly all of Iowa’s players are white. Those reflexively hating on Reese in her moment of glory were telling on themselves, so consumed by subconscious prejudice that they missed out on the chance to savor the dramatic crescendo of an exhilarating tournament that far exceeded the men’s version in narrative drama and ticket price.
The sky-high cost for a seat in the arena (Final Four tickets were selling for more than $300 on secondary sites like StubHub compared to under $70 for the men’s game) confirmed what many viewers may have already realized: Women’s college hoops has become far more entertaining than the men’s offering, elevated by a pipeline of hypercompetitive personalities duking it out for supremacy, each growing more urgent as their time in college winds down.
Half a century after Title IX, which ensured equal funding for men’s and women’s college sports, the pool of talent and resources in women’s college basketball has grown wide enough to create the sort of competitive balance that has made men’s March Madness must-see television. From 1987 to 2016, women’s college basketball had never gone more than three years without either UConn or Tennessee winning the championship. Since then, neither has won a title, and five different teams have won the last five tournaments. This year, for the first time, two of the four top-seeded teams failed to reach the quarterfinals. South Carolina, the highest-ranked team in the country and the only one with an undefeated record at the start of the tournament, fell in the semifinals to Clark’s Iowa.
Women’s college hoops has become far more entertaining than the men’s offering.
Still standing amid the wreckage of fallen juggernauts, 21-year-old Clark and 20-year-old Reese embody a star power no longer attainable in the men’s game, where the most talented players leave after one year to enter the NBA draft, often declaring their departure as soon as the tournament concludes, just as many of us casual spectators are learning their names and backgrounds. Maybe one day, the WNBA lowers its age requirement — currently 22 years old or four years removed from high school — and the most talented women will leave for the pros after a single year of college, but for now, their extended time on campus blooms the storylines and rivalries that heighten a sport’s drama.
Clark has been a fixture on SportsCenter highlights for at least three years, draining shots so far from the basket that announcers have compared her to Stephen Curry. She has been in the national spotlight for so long that even casual sports fans have witnessed her break records, make jokes in postgame interviews, and hold back tears after devastating losses. By the time she stepped onto the court on Sunday for her first NCAA championship game, the Associated Press had named her the country’s best player, and an expanding circle of admirers touted her killer instinct and cold-blooded swagger.
In the quarterfinals, she faced off against Louisville’s star guard, Hailey Van Lith, a third-year player who had led her team to the Final Four in 2022. Like Clark, Van Lith had developed a reputation for her competitive passion. She had jawed with her Texas opponents during her previous game, and in the handshake line afterward, one of them appeared to say to her, “Call me a pussy again, bitch, I’mma beat your ass.” Van Lith continued running her mouth in the game against Iowa. After hitting a long shot, she stomped toward the sideline and appeared to shout, “Get the fuck off my court, bitch.” Later, as Van Lith apparently kept talking shit even once Iowa was comfortably ahead, Clark appeared to fire back, “You’re down by 15. Shut up.”
In the next round, against a historically dominant South Carolina team heavily favored to win it all, Clark waved dismissively at an opponent standing wide open at the three-point line, “as if to say, ‘I don’t care about you, I’m not defending you,’” the ESPN announcer described. For the second straight game she scored at least 40 points, then capped off the victory with the “you can’t see me” hand gesture.
Playing at her highest level, toppling the best team in the country, living up to the hype of her stature, Clark seemed on the road to coronation. But the championship game pitted her against a fellow iconoclast envisioning her own ascendency. Reese and Clark posed as compelling foils for each other, with contrasting styles and paths to excellence, setting up a showdown bursting with intrigue, the high-octane guard from Des Moines against the post-prowling forward from Baltimore.
While Clark thrives in the airspace far from the hoop, Reese operates beneath it, jostling amid the tangle of limbs in the trenches, slipping into narrow pockets with crisp footwork, corralling loose balls with hard-nosed persistence, breaking rebounding records with a knack for clever body positioning. Her exceptional talents shine in details subtler than the splashy thrill of a three-point shot. Basketball coaches often call rebounding the “dirty work” of the game, the invisible labor more likely to elicit awe from teammates watching film than cheers from stadium crowds.
Reese and Clark posed as compelling foils for each other, with contrasting styles and paths to excellence.
But part of Reese’s charm is that she is far from invisible. She conducts her gritty playing style with an impeccable aesthetic style that earned her the nickname “Bayou Barbie,” as well as a collection of beauty product endorsement deals. She crashes the boards and bangs her body around the paint while rocking eyelash extensions, a French manicure, a compression stocking over one leg, and a headband wrapped around a wig that hangs to her waist.
Whereas Clark carries herself with a just-business demeanor on the court that some have likened to Kobe Bryant’s self-described “Mamba mentality,” Reese plays like she’s having fun, celebrating tough shots by flexing muscles, mugging to the camera with an ironic scowl, or shouting to the crowd with raised arms.
She and her teammates had lots of fun on Sunday, as LSU’s barrage of three-pointers built a first-half lead that Iowa couldn’t climb back from. With the final seconds ticking down, Reese waved her palm over her face while walking toward Clark. Then she pointed to her right ring finger, to indicate the championship jewelry she would soon possess.
It didn’t exactly mirror what Clark had done in previous games against other teams. It was more brazen, aimed at taunting a specific person at the emotionally charged conclusion of a high-stakes competition. It was fiery. It was fun. It injected the final moments of a blowout with a memorable morsel to discuss, laugh at, or bring up anytime anyone does something similar in the future.
Sports are supposed to be silly, playful, and petty, riddled with minor slights transformed into major motivations.
Asked about it later in a postgame interview, Reese said, “Caitlin Clark is a hell of a player for sure, but I don’t take disrespect lightly.” Reese didn’t say that Clark had disrespected her. Rather she said she was avenging the disrespect she felt Clark had shown South Carolina, whom she called “my girls,” noting that they played in the same conference as LSU. “Y’all not gon’ disrespect them, either,” she said.
Sports are supposed to be silly, playful, and petty, riddled with minor slights transformed into major motivations, sizzling with innocent beefs that magnify the will to win, thick with tensions that make the games feel more meaningful than they actually are. This is recreation, escape, entertainment. The more genuine the performance, the greater the thrill. Where else can you witness people collapse into tears without the trauma of tragedy? Where else are explosions of euphoria so pure and regularly displayed? Sports are fantasies mimicking the extremes of reality without the consequences. Winners ascend to the highest of highs. Losers reckon with the opportunity to develop resilience. The outcomes matter only as much as the participants are willing to put in.
After the game, Clark said she didn’t see Reese’s hand gesture, and she seemed unbothered upon hearing about it, a show of respect for the unwritten playground rule about being able to take as much as you give. Talking trash is a mind game that raises the emotional investment beyond what many players are willing to risk. Only the most confident and passionate throw their voice into the ring. Losing feels bad, but losing after brashly declaring your supremacy feels worse. A good trash talker dares their opponent to match their wager. A great trash talker hopes their opponent doesn’t shrink from the pressure but rises to the challenge, because then vanquishing them will be all the sweeter, and all the louder.
As an elite trash talker herself, Clark knew better than to speak ill of an opponent who had just beaten her. But I doubt she forgets it the next time their paths cross on a court.
Clark and Reese will return for another season of college ball — neither will be eligible for the WNBA for another year. Van Lith will be back, too, and so will UConn’s best player, Paige Bueckers, who was named National Player of the Year in 2021 but missed this season with a torn ACL. The next chapter of an epic tale looms on the horizon. For now, though, Reese holds the crown, and with it, the last word in the dialogue until further notice.
“I don’t fit in a box that y’all want me to be in. I’m too hood. I’m too ghetto. Y’all told me that all year,” she said after the championship game. “It was bigger than me tonight. It was bigger than me. Twitter is going to go on a rage every time, and I’m happy.” ●