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LSU’s Angel Reese, Iowa’s Caitlin Clark and the double standards of race in sports

The Final Four was the latest example of Black players vilified for doing the same things white players are praised for doing

DALLAS — A day after LSU’s convincing 102-85 victory over Iowa in the women’s national championship game, fans are still buzzing on social and mainstream media.

They are not buzzing about a last-minute shot or a controversial call. Social media is buzzing about a gesture seen around the world when LSU star forward Angel Reese waved her hand in front of her face, stared at Iowa guard Caitlin Clark and pointed toward her ring finger.

Social media exploded. Reese, known as “Bayou Barbie,” was either defended for her intentional trash talk that’s part of the game or was condemned for lacking grace in victory.

After Sunday’s game, Reese, a name, image and likeness giant, brought the issue front and center during a postgame news conference after she was asked about the interaction with Clark, the AP Player of the Year. To her credit, Reese was unapologetic and her response went viral.

“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,” Reese said.

Then, in an apparent reference to Clark, she added, “When other people do it, 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.”

Case closed.

LSU forward Angel Reese (right) gestures in front of Iowa guard Caitlin Clark (left) during the fourth quarter of the NCAA women’s tournament championship game at American Airlines Center on April 2 in Dallas.

maddie meyer/getty images

Even as the NCAA celebrates five decades of Title IX , a divide continues to exist between white and African American women over opportunities and perception. White players are seen as tough and fundamentally sound, Black players are viewed as flashy brawlers.

At one level, chickens were merely coming home to roost for Clark, whose trash talk gestures had been lauded throughout the NCAA tournament.

You can argue that it was Clark who started all of this. At least she didn’t back down.

Clark repeatedly made the “you can’t see me” gesture during Iowa’s win over Louisville in the Elite Eight. In media, she was heralded as confident and brash . Clark followed up her “you can’t see me” gesture Friday against South Carolina freshman guard Raven Johnson.

Make no mistake: Clark earned the right to talk trash. She torched South Carolina’s vaunted defense for 41 points. I’d talk trash, too.

On Sunday, Clark merely got it back from Reese, who had 15 points, 10 rebounds and was named the most outstanding player of the women’s NCAA tournament. Reese played brilliantly as part of an overall team effort that frustrated Clark, who picked up four fouls and was called at least twice for pushing off, something she’d been allowed to get away with against South Carolina.

But we’re not really talking about talking trash, are we? We’re talking about double standards: Black players are vilified for doing the same things white players are praised for doing.

After Sunday’s game, Clark told reporters she didn’t see Reese’s gesture.

“I have no idea, I was just trying to get to the handshake line,” she said.

Iowa’s head coach Lisa Bluder was diplomatic. She wasn’t going to make the same mistake she made last week when asked about rebounding against South Carolina. “Somebody kind of just described it to me as you’re going to a bar fight when you try to go rebound against them, they’re just so good,” Bluder said March 28 before the Final Four.

“I’m sure she was really proud of her accomplishment. And I would be really proud of my accomplishment if I made it, won the national championship too,” Bluder said Sunday of Reese. “We’re all different people, and we all have different ways to show our emotion. Again, I’ve got to focus on what I can control.”

Iowa guard Caitlin Clark (center) shoots against LSU forward Angel Reese (right) and Ashlyn Harris (left) during the fourth quarter of the NCAA women’s tournament championship game at American Airlines Center on April 2 in Dallas.

Maddie Meyer/Getty Images

My other takeaway from the weekend is that Great White Hope-ism is gender neutral. What I’ve observed over the years is that whenever you have a white star in a sport dominated by Black athletes, the white star is swathed in extra layers of praise and adulation. This could be Christian McCaffrey in the NFL or Luka Doncic and Nikola Jokic in the NBA. Now we see it, or rather hear it, with Clark.

Make no mistake, Clark is one of the most talented basketball players the college game has seen. She has remarkable range. She has been favorably — and accurately — compared to Golden State Warriors guard Stephen Curry, with amazing ballhandling skills that allow her to get off 3-point shots, break down defenses and find open teammates with pinpoint passes. She’s also not described as cocky, but confident.

On Sunday, Reese simply gave it back to Clark. Many neutral observers and Clark’s fans were not pleased and played the sportsmanship and class card. Double standards: When we do it, it’s bravado. When you do it, it’s crass. When we play hard, it’s gritty. When you play hard, it’s thuggery.

I saw this this firsthand in the 1980s with John Thompson’s Georgetown team. They were routinely cast as villains and thugs. We saw the same thing with UNLV’s great teams of the 1990s. When UNLV played Duke for the national title in 1990, Duke’s players were cast as “choirboys” while UNLV players were cast as villains and thugs. Then, of course, there was Michigan’s Fab Five which, critics say, introduced hip-hop elements into basketball.

Now that the women’s game has grown and African American women continue to become increasingly prominent, the same stereotypes are emerging: Black women portrayed as rough-and-tumble street fighters, their white counterparts as stalwart, heady competitors.

This weekend’s semifinal and championship games made stereotypes and comparison easy: Iowa’s predominantly white team and a white star in Clark versus a South Carolina team with a Black coach and nearly all Black players. On Sunday, Iowa clashed with an LSU team consisting of mostly Black players and a Black star in Reese.

A perfect matchup for a polarized nation.

Then there’s sexism. I’m not sure if the Reese-Clark episode would have even been an issue had two men’s teams been playing. In the men’s basketball, trash talk and confrontation are expected and encouraged.

Regardless of the controversy — in part, because of it — this weekend was great for women’s basketball. It’s great that we’re still talking about the championship game and great that we’re talking about Reese, Clark and double standards.

What I saw on Sunday was an outstanding LSU team competing against Iowa on a level playing field. Reese simply gave Clark a dose of her own medicine, and the angry social media reaction to this leveling up reminds me of my favorite unattributed quote: When you’re accustomed to privilege, equality feels like oppression.

William C. Rhoden, the former award-winning sports columnist for The New York Times and author of Forty Million Dollar Slaves, is a writer-at-large for Andscape.