The NCAA’s “Most Outstanding Player,” Angel Reese, is unapologetically who she is — and she’s among the next generation of Black female athletes refusing to let double standards command the narrative around how they compete.
The Louisiana State University basketball player and others are not only playing in a fresh manicure and lashes while embracing sports’ competitive spirit — but they’re also calling out the media about how they’re portrayed, said Torrie Browning, a former collegiate student athlete and head tennis coach.
Reese, a Louisiana State University basketball player, made headlines nearly every day this week. Her “you can’t see me” hand gesture toward an opponent in some ways overshadowed the team’s first women’s basketball championship. Critics called her “classless” and “ghetto” in response to her confidence, competitiveness, and outspokenness.
Public defense for her was swift, including from the University of Iowa’s Caitlin Clark, who the gesture was directed toward. But others backpedaled when she dismissed first lady Jill Biden after she suggested runner-up Iowa also get an invitation to the White House, a gesture that is typically reserved for the national champions.
Still, the debates over how Reese should compete and celebrate reflect the harsh scrutiny against Black women in sports that goes back decades: so harsh that those who study — and have lived through — the intersections of race, gender, and athletics say white athletes rarely receive the same criticism.
Yet, Black female athletes like Serena Williams, who often pushed back against the status quo, were usually ahead of their time and inspired male and female athletes, Browning said.
“Black female athletes are always criticized,” she said. They are described as too aggressive when they play, she said, and too passionate when they celebrate their victories. Too negative when they lose.
But the criticism didn’t phase Reese.
“All year I was critiqued about who I was,” she said after the victory. “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 girls that look like me.”
And in some cases, Black women are calling out the media before the public criticism strikes.
Dawn Staley, the University of South Carolina’s women’s basketball head coach, could tell the backlash was coming against the Black athletes who have been fighting for the championship bid. When her team lost, she sent a message to the media during the postgame press conference.
“We’re not bar fighters. We’re not thugs. We’re not monkeys. We’re not street fighters,” she said. “Watch what you say about our team.”
That came less than two days before Reese was ridiculed. Staley asked folks to put aside the racism and bias that plagues how Black women are portrayed in athletics.
“If you really knew them,” she said of her players, “you would think differently. So don’t judge us by the color of our skin. Judge us by how we approach the game.”
This year was a momentous one for women’s collegiate basketball. Sunday’s championship game was the most watched women’s college basketball match in history. It was the very first time women’s basketball was getting that much love and attention, said Sabrina Razack, who studies media, race, sport, gender, and social movements. “They were really catapulting these athletes onto the stage like they do the men.”
Media outlets brought out multiple camera angles. Sports fans got to know the athletes, and their personalities emerged. “Their personalities were massive,” said Razack. “They were rappers, they were fashionistas. They were witty and they were pretty media savvy.”
Teams that had previously flown under the radar were now met with microphones and cameras in their face. And, the athletes have been unapologetic. Yet after LSU secured the national championship, the spotlight showed how Black women, including Reese, are often treated ruthlessly in the media.
It happened repeatedly with Venus and Serena Williams, who were often discussed as being too aggressive. Too powerful. They were criticized for how they dressed and how they wore beads in their hair. In 2018, a sports reporter asked if Serena was “intimidated” by her opponent’s “supermodel good looks.” He later apologized. Williams has also spoken out about how she was drug tested more than any other top tennis player.
“Women are taught and socialized to be well-behaved, to be respectable, to be polite, so anything outside of that will be questioned. Then, when you layer race on top of that, that’s when you get even further discrimination,” Razack said.
What’s changed in recent years, she said, is how the curtain has been lifted on this type of discrimination and unequal treatment. A lot of sports media’s most recognizable faces spoke up in defense of Reese after the championship game, including Shaquille O’Neal, Jemelle Hill, FS1’s “Undisputed” co-host Shannon Sharpe, and former NBA player Jalen Rose.
Other Black female athletes have similarly fired back at critics in the media. When seven-time Olympic medalist Simone Biles pulled out of the 2021 Tokyo games, she spoke out against those who judged her as a quitter for looking out for her health.
“This Olympics doesn’t erase the past accomplishments I’ve achieved nor does it define who I am as an athlete,” she wrote on Instagram. Tennis star Naomi Osaka has been scrutinized for her racial identity, and chastised for a decision to prioritize her mental health instead of competing in the French Open.
In 2018, Osaka and Serena Williams were at the center of media controversy when the contentious U.S. Open women’s final ended with a racist editorial cartoon depicting a caricature of Williams angrily stomping on her tennis racket, and Osaka far lighter in complexion. It was one among many commentaries on Williams’ physique that have surfaced throughout her career.
Browning believes that, in some ways, the criticism fueled Williams to become one of the greatest athletes of all time, she said. As a young tennis player, Venus and Serena were Browning’s inspirations. When she picked up a racket at 6 years old, she had Black women to look up to in a sport with little Black representation. Maybe she didn’t have to fit the status quo, she thought.
“They set a new standard,” said Browning, “if you wanted to be able to beat them, you had to step up.”