Let Angel Reese and Other Black Women Athletes Compete as They See Fit

Black woman basketball player, representing Angel Reese, dribbles a basketball

For decades, March Madness coverage was dominated by the men’s tournaments, with women’s teams barely acknowledged until the creation of the WNBA in 1996. Yet, it still took another four to five years for women’s college basketball to move into the media spotlight. Hall of Fame basketball coach and former WNBA player Dawn Staley has been a major force behind elevating women’s college basketball. As one of the all-time greatest athletes and coaches, Staley’s winning record—she has won several Olympic gold medals—and her role in building stellar programs at Temple University and the University of South Carolina have undeniably contributed to women’s basketball’s rise in prominence. 

This year’s women’s March Madness tournament was unlike any other I have seen in my history of watching the tournament. For the first time it seemed, and partially aided by social media, the entire nation was watching and deeply invested in which team would reign victorious. While I am thrilled about the heightened attention women’s college basketball is receiving, this season also marked the first time, to my knowledge, that pervasive issues of implicit bias, classism, and racism were on national display in two incidents.

The first incident involved Coach Staley addressing the national sports media after her team’s loss to the University of Iowa. She implored the media to “watch what [they] say” when publicly discussing her team, adding that “We’re not bar fighters. We’re not thugs. We’re not monkeys. We’re not street fighters.” Staley also committed never to change who she is as a coach and leader regardless of the media scrutiny she may encounter.

The second incident, which set the internet on fire, involved harsh criticism of Louisiana State University player Angel Reese’s “trash talking” hand gesture toward Iowa player Caitlin Clark during the finals. Sportswriters and other prominent media pundits, such as Keith Olbermann and Barstool Sports founder Dave Portnoy took to various social media platforms to call Reese hideous names. The behavior of these older adult white men made my stomach twist and implored me to send them both messages.

Caitlin Clark made a very similar hand gesture in the previous game and was celebrated for her bravado. During a recent ESPN interview, Clark defended Reese, stating that high-energy engagement is a part of the game. Louisiana State University President William Tate also defended Reese during a WBRZ-TV news interview, adding, “If you have a problem with it, beat her … If you can’t beat her, sit down.”

The current circumstances surrounding the women’s March Madness tournament fit a historical pattern of Black women athletes facing hypercriticism followed by “punishment.” Scholars have studied this phenomenon since the rise of the late track star Florence (Flo Jo) Joyner (paywalled). Critiques of Joyner did not focus on her sports prowess but rather on her flowing hair extensions; long, intricately designed fingernails; and claims that she was hypersexualizing the sport.

The onslaught of attacks on Joyner became a “blueprint” for the sports media and other commentators later seeking to level vicious verbal assaults on other Black women athletes, including Venus and Serena Williams (paywalled), Lolo Jones (paywalled), Marion Jones (paywalled), and Sha’Charri Richardson. We must also not forget the infamous Don Imus incident (paywalled) in which he referred to the 2007 Rutgers University women’s basketball team as “nappy-headed hos” during one of his radio show broadcasts.

The 2023 women’s March Madness tournament has magnified the vitriol that many Black women experience in various places. Higher education scholars can draw and examine many cross-sector correlations of the hypercriticism-punishment pattern directed toward Black women when they bring their authentic selves into predominantly white spaces. We must self-interrogate why, as a society, it seems acceptable to routinely hold Black women to different standards than their white peers. The aspiration toward inclusive excellence demands that one’s authenticity be honored and respected at all times.

Alexia Hudson-Ward headshot

About the author:

Alexia Hudson-Ward is Associate Director of Research and Learning, Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) Libraries.

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