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NCAA Women’s Basketball Tournament: Lessons On and Off the Court

LSU forward Angel Reese in action on the court at the 2023 NCAA Women's Basketball Tournament.
LSU forward Angel Reese in action on the court at the 2023 NCAA Women's Basketball Tournament. By Courtesy of Alexander Jonesi / Wikimedia Commons
By Marley E. Dias, Crimson Staff Writer

“What they gonna say now?!” yells LSU forward and “Bayou Barbie” Angel Reese as she points to her newly adorned Final Four hat. Reese and the rest of her Division I Women’s Basketball team have continued to make history, leading LSU to its first championship in history, after defeating Iowa 102-85 on April 2nd.

Reese — a former Maryland Terrapin — has led both her team and college basketball to new heights, leading the sport with 17 name, image, and likeness deals. Their regular season win against Mississippi State set an attendance record for Pete Maravich Assembly Center, bringing over 15,700 fans to watch Reese work. She also earned Most Outstanding Player for the tournament. While Reese is a star in statlines and headlines, she nonetheless continued to face backlash and hate.

Towering over guards at 6’3”, Reese takes ownership of the paint, averaging 1.6 blocks per game. In basketball, a block is a pure athletic act of domination that stops an opponent from scoring, making it one of the most exciting moments of a game. When Reese blocks, she often has some trash talk for her opponents, letting them know she’s one step ahead of them. But while blocks in men’s basketball can be praised to the point of being deemed historic — such as Lebron James’s block against Andre Iguadola in game 7 of the 2016 NBA finals — when Reese does it, she often faces floods of hate comments.

While faceless commenters might feel safe to bash Reese’s play style, she took to Twitter to let them know she’s unafraid to be herself on and off the court.

“‘I’m too hood.’ ‘I’m too ghetto.’ I don’t fit the narrative and I’M OK WITH THAT. I’m from Baltimore where you hoop outside & talk trash. If it was a boy y’all wouldn’t be saying nun at all. Let’s normalize women showing passion for the game instead of it being ‘embarrassing,’” she wrote.

Angel Reese is calling out misogynoir, a term that Northeastern University’s Women, Gender, and Sexuality Studies professor Moya Bailey coined as “the ways anti-Black and misogynistic representation shape broader ideas about Black women, particularly in visual culture and digital space.” This policing of Reese’s play style is not just sexist, but also wrongly characterizes it as a violent act that intersects with her Blackness and contributes to the common stereotype that Black women are too aggressive.

To think further about how misogynoir functions in sports, let’s look at the criticisms of Reese’s white coach, Kim Mulkey, about her passion on the court. While she’s similarly labeled as overly passionate about her team, a label seldom painted on male coaches, it would be difficult to find comments calling Mulkey “hood” or “ghetto.” Conversations about sexism in women’s sports are continually being brought to the forefront of discourse around athletics, but it is critical to acknowledge the multiple forms of bigotry at play as they go unarticulated in these conversations.

In LSU’s win against the University of Miami in the Elite Eight, Reese set the SEC single season record for double-doubles; she later broke the NCAA record for double-doubles in the tournament final. Her pride and confidence is more than earned, and the racist undertones of the comment sections on her past prove that no matter the level of greatness, Black women — especially Black women in sports — must meet impossible expectations in order to gain respectability.

Another star who faces sexism in sport is Caitlin Clark, a dynamic sharpshooter known for her long range. She led her team, The University of Iowa, to their first championship appearance and was named the Naismith National Player of the Year.

Clark is an undeniable gift to basketball, becoming the first player ever to earn a 40 point triple-double in NCAA tournament history, regardless of gender. Her skill has done wonders for women’s basketball viewership — over 2.5 million fans watched Iowa’s win against Louisville in the elite eight, reaching rating highs the NBA hasn’t seen for the entire regular season.

Scattered below Caitlin Clark highlight videos are comments misgendering her, calling her “bro,” implying that a female athlete must have male biology to be as gifted as she is.

Women’s sports are often mislabeled as unpopular, less athletic, and less competitive — nevertheless, this year’s stars have reminded audiences that they are a force to be reckoned with. Most importantly, they have proven in their play and their presence off the court that sexism in sports can no longer be tolerated. The tournament continues to raise the question of why women’s sports are undervalued culturally despite their evident success, and if the success of this year’s stars has finally begun to turn the tide of misogyny.

The NCAA Women’s Tournament has seen a 42% increase in viewership from last year’s tournament. This year’s championship game also made history as the most-watched college women’s basketball game ever, with a peak of 12.6 million viewers and an average of 9.9 million viewers. Audiences are making it clear that they want to watch women’s sports, but the dialogues surrounding these athletes reveal the lack of social progress even amongst growth.

Sports are meant to bring communities together, teach children important life skills in cooperation and discipline, and entertain. The suggestion that history-making athletes like Caitlin Clark and Angel Reese are anything less than extraordinary is more than false. It is a harm to the young girls on the court striving for excellence.

It is time to stop forcing female athletes to prove themselves and instead celebrate their greatness rather than simply accepting it. From coaches to trainers to athletes, the women in athletics are due for a resounding round of applause across the nation.

—Staff writer Marley E. Dias can be reached at marley.dias@thecrimson.com.

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