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For Women’s Hoops, Angel Reese & Caitlin Clark’s Trash-talking Was Never the Problem

Last Updated: July 1, 2023
Since Angel Reese and LSU beat Caitlin Clark and Iowa for college basketball’s national title, the toxic national discourse has been about everything other than the game itself.

Take a bow, Angel Reese. The LSU Tigers hoops star deserves as much after putting up yet another double-double with 15 points and 10 boards in her team’s 102-85 victory over Iowa in the finale of the Women’s NCAA Tournament en route to Most Outstanding Player honors.

In most cases in sports, the days following such a championship accomplishment are filled with praise and congratulations. Instead, a large part of the national discourse has been focused on players’ celebrations rather than celebrating the women themselves that put on literally record-breaking performances on both sides.

In the final moments of the game, cameras caught Reese doing the same “you can’t see me” celebration that Iowa star Caitlin Clark did in the Elite Eight against Louisville in the direction of her opponent. She added her own twist on the gesture popularized by G-Unit rapper Tony Yayo and wrestler/actor John Cena by pointing to her ring finger, alluding to the jewelry she just locked up by winning a natty.

My first thought? What a badass, the same thought I had when Clark did the same thing in the Elite Eight against Louisville. Both of these players have been phenomenal all season long and have helped elevate women’s basketball forward in very real ways.

But thanks to social media, the conversation surrounding this brief celebration turned vile.

As anyone who works in sports knows, keyboard warriors are nothing new, so perhaps we shouldn’t be all that surprised. When you have grown men with high-profile presences in media throwing out profanities at a young woman who isn’t even of legal drinking age as if she committed a crime on the court for their millions of Twitter followers to see, however, that’s where we have a problem:

It’s exhausting. It’s unnecessary.

Luckily, being the badass that she is, “Bayou Barbie” doesn’t care what the retrograde haters think. She also couldn’t care less what this author — or any other writer that feels the need to chime in on the matter — thinks of her, and rightfully so.

“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. When other people do it, y’all don’t say nothing. This was for the people that look like me,” Reese said to members of the media after the game.

She doubled down with the sentiment on ESPN the next day with host Malika Andrews.

Talk that talk, Angel.

Honestly, it’s refreshing to see. She has every right to feel the way she feels and say what she wants to say, and if anyone has a problem with it, well, that problem may lie within. Do you know who hasn’t had a problem with it? Caitlin Clark, who got the ESPN treatment with a specific segment discussing her trash-talking ahead of the title game — and that’s because she’s a competitor who understands that if you dish it out, you gotta be able to take it back in return.

“I don’t think Angel should be criticized at all. No matter what way it goes, she should never be criticized for what she did. I compete, she competed,” Clark said to the Worldwide Leader. “It was a super, super fun game. I think that’s what’s going to bring more people to our game.”

This is sports. It doesn’t need a clarifier ahead of it. Men or women, this is supposed to happen when the best of the best put it all on the line on the biggest stage.

Plenty of rabble-rousers out there are trying to turn this into an individual battle between Reese and Clark rather than encouraging healthy competition. Don’t get me wrong, I’m sure some of it was personal; perhaps Reese’s postgame comment of “I don’t take disrespect lightly” was meant to refer directly to Clark’s waving-off of South Carolina’s Raven Johnson in the Final Four.

But even so, I refuse to give in to that notion and pit these two women against each other when they’re likely on the same page about it. Again, competitors compete, and I’m here for it.

So, all that said, let’s get into it.

I could talk about how there were clear-as-day racial biases here, with pundits and fans alike choosing sides instead of enjoying the two of the best players the sport of basketball has to offer at peak performance. Not to harp too much on two individual professional Twitter instigators, but simply take the words used to describe Angel’s actions above — “classless piece of shit” and “fucking idiot” — and compare them to those used for Clark while doing damn near the same celebration: “Queen of Clapbacks.”

Some observers have comparied the length of each respective celebration to bolster one’s “argument,” but talk about nitpicky. The sentiment is the same, but Reese’s was done amid much higher stakes.

Excuse her extending the championship moment for just a bit, putting one more personal stamp on it.

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This isn’t the first time words during this tournament have carried racial implications, either. When South Carolina, undefeated all season long and the top seed heading into the tournament, fell to the hands of Clark and Iowa in the Final Four, head coach Dawn Staley used her postgame remarks to defend her team.

“We’re not bar fighters. We’re not thugs. We’re not monkeys. We’re not street fighters,” she said. “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.”

The “bar fighters” reference may have been in response to Iowa’s coach Lisa Bluder likened offensive rebounding against the Gamecocks to a bar fight, but in reality, Staley may have simply been fed up with the narrative surrounding her team all season long.

I also could address the hypocritical takes out there — and there have been plenty — expecting female hoopers (or female athletes in general) to fall in line and behave like “ladies.” In the wide world of celebrations and taunts, this whole episode should have just been considered just another day on a basketball court; Reese’s clip would get played once on SportsCenter, dudes at the local bar would note how cool it was, and the world would move on. This doesn’t even come close to some of the worst or most egregious trash-talking during a basketball game when compared to male counterparts.

So, why all the hate toward Angel?

Take one of the most disrespectful taunts in basketball for example — the “too short”/”too small” gesture. It’s been done so often in the game that it has become accepted, especially by the men. The same can be said for a staredown after posterizing someone on a dunk, another taunt that occurs regularly. These things happen all the time in the men’s game without any of us batting an eye.

So circling back to my original point: Why are we even talking about this?

Instead of harping on the subject further, I’ll choose to speak on Angel Reese’s and her team’s accomplishments en route to winning a national championship. I choose to focus on the fact that she shows up to the court every single night as her true self, unapologetically so. Or how about we celebrate her breaking a single-season record for double-doubles with 34 on her way to unanimous First Team All-American honors?

Then, there’s Caitlin Clark, who was the best player in the country all season long, landing consensus National Player of the Year honors for her troubles. In case you forgot in all this hoopla, she broke an NCAA Tournament record with 193 total points while putting up Stephen Curry-like daggers on the regular.

Perhaps most importantly, though, Sunday’s championship game was a huge win for women’s college basketball, as LSU and Iowa made TV history by attracting 9.9 million viewers, peaking at 12.6 million. It was the most-watched college event — men’s or women’s — on the ESPN+ streaming platform on top of being the most-viewed women’s college basketball game ever. Oh, and the viewership was up 103% year over year.

For reference, this game boasted higher US viewership than the following events:

  • Any MLS game ever
  • Any Stanley Cup Finals game since 1973
  • The 2023 Orange Bowl and 2023 Sugar Bowl
  • Any 2021 NBA Finals game
  • The season finale of HBO’s The Last of Us
  • The most recent All-Star Games for the MLB, NBA, & NHL.

(Now, imagine if networks started to invest in women’s sports much sooner! But that’s a topic for another day.)

Here are a few more records that fell during Sunday’s title game:

  • LSU’s Jasmine Carson scored 16 second-quarter points, breaking the single-period scoring record in a women’s Final Four game. 
  • Clark broke the NCAA title game record for 3-pointers with eight.
  • The Tigers’ 102 points are the largest point total in any semifinal or national title in tournament history dating back to 1982. Throwing in Iowa’s 85 points, the 187 combined points were the highest-ever total for a national championship game. 
  • Iowa’s 14 3-pointers set a record for most team triples in a title game.

To be clear, that list is not exhaustive of all the records that were broken in this game, but it’s a fine place to start given the extent to which all this unhealthy discourse in recent days has distracted from the matter.

So, no more celebration talk from me, thanks — I’m handing out flowers.

Congratulations to Angel Reese and the LSU Tigers, who went through the gauntlet on their way to bringing home a national title to Baton Rouge. And congratulations to Caitlin Clark and Iowa, too, for making a run to the championship that included an upset victory over one of the best teams in recent memory in the previously undefeated South Carolina Gamecocks. While we’re at it, congratulations to Dawn Staley and Co. as well for also doing their part in pushing things forward with a 42-game winning streak that sure inspired challengers nationwide to go harder and do more.

With authentic personalities in Reese, Clark, and Staley leading the way, women’s basketball is in good hands and trending in the right direction.

Those who prefer to ignore even the most impressive sporting achievements in favor of harmful discourse, on the other hand, I’m not so sure about. Maybe it’s time for a different hobby.

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