Angel Reese and the Emotional Policing of Black Women Athletes

DALLAS, TEXAS - APRIL 02: Angel Reese #10 of the LSU Lady Tigers reacts during the fourth quarter against the Iowa Hawkeyes during the 2023 NCAA Women's Basketball Tournament championship game at American Airlines Center on April 02, 2023 in Dallas, Texas
Maddie Meyer/Getty Images
Maddie Meyer/Getty Images

Watching Angel Reese and the rest of the LSU women's basketball team win the NCAA championship — with their lime-green sneakers, long fingernails decorated with embellishments and pops of color, 30-inch curly hair, afro puffs, hangtime twists, and lashes on fleek — filled myself and many other Black women with unapologetic pride and Black Girl Magic. It was the same overwhelming joy I felt when Kamala Harris, a Black woman, became vice president. These two visceral moments acted as symbols of hope and change. It showed the world, and us women of color, that a space was created — that our seat at the table had arrived. This was an iconic moment, I thought.

But unfortunately, like so many other well-deserved milestones we are entitled to, LSU's celebration was short-lived, as Twitter users debated Reese's sportsmanship and character during the game. Many people took issue with Reese throwing up John Cena's infamous "you can't see me" gesture to Iowa Hawkeyes star player Caitlin Clark and pointing to her own ring finger to indicate where the championship ring would land. White sports commentators Keith Olbermann and Danny Kanell as well as Barstool founder David Portnoy went directly to Twitter to publicly ridicule Reese. "Classless piece of sh*t," Portnoy said of Reese. "What a f*cking idiot," Olbermann echoed.

What's ironic, just days prior to Reese's display, society was praising Caitlin Clark for her trash-talking skills when she also put up the "you can't see me" gesture. People cheered. They saluted her, calling Clark competitive, intelligent, and an entertaining player. One fan called it the "best move of the game." Cena himself tweeted, "Even if they could see you . . . they couldn't guard you!" So why did the public react so differently to Baltimore-born Reese, a Black forward? The monumental win gave LSU their first women's basketball title. Why can't we relish in this hard-fought, well-deserved victory?

The type of backlash Reese received isn't a first for Black women, and more particularly Black women athletes. Time and time again they have their emotions and sportsmanship policed and questioned. Remember when tennis legend Serena Williams broke her racket in 2018 during the US Open final against Naomi Osaka? She exclaimed, "I don't cheat to win," to the umpire and was critiqued for expressing her frustration. Melbourne, Australia's Herald Sun even published a demeaning and racially charged cartoon in response.

Trash talking is a staple part of all sports. It shows a competitive spirit and dedication, and acts as an entry point into the players' inner thoughts and actions. In an interview with SiriusXM College Sports Radio, Clark confirmed trash talk has always been part of her game. "I've always been someone who plays with a lot of passion and a lot of emotion. . . . Women should be allowed to play with that type of passion and that type of emotion," she said when asked about her position on smack talk. Unfortunately, Clark is celebrated for this competitive spirit, whereas Reese is seen as aggressive and unsportsmanlike.

"I don't fit the narrative. I don't fit in 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. But when other people do it y'all don't say nothing. So this was for the girls that look like me, that's gonna speak up on what they believe in, that's unapologetically you."

This discrepancy doesn't just stop at race though, it involves gender too. Women athletes are held to unrealistic standards in comparison to men counterparts when it comes to smack talk and celebrating their wins. The media gladly tore apart Brandi Chastain when she ripped her jersey off, displaying nothing but a sports bra, after scoring the game-winning penalty kick against China in the 1999 Women's World Cup final. But this celebratory move has been done by so many victorious men soccer players, from Cristiano Ronaldo to Lionel Messi. And if we're talking smack talk, the list of guilty NBA players who've talked crap on the court is endless. Yet society applauds their comedy and wit (think: Draymond Green's 2020 comment to former Celtics player Paul Pierce: "Keep chasing that farewell tour. They don't love you like that. You thought you was Kobe?"). Chalk it up to "boys will be boys" or a lazy excuse for how men get out their aggression, but women athletes simply are not afforded the same freedom and grace when it comes to trash talking.

Fortunately for Reese, many supporters have called out this double standard and supported her clap back to the negative comments. "All year I was critiqued about who I was," she stated in her postgame interview after the championship win. "I don't fit the narrative. I don't fit in 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. But when other people do it, y'all don't say nothing. So this was for the girls that look like me, that's gonna speak up on what they believe in, that's unapologetically you."

Reese has continued to troll the haters on social media days after the initial backlash. The LSU sophomore posted a TikTok video in her championship hat doing the "you can't see me" while "Back End" plays in the background. If you're unfamiliar with the song, the lyrics say, "It's cool when they do it, it's a problem when I do it. F*ck 'em" — making for what some would call a perfect response to the double standard Reese is being held to.

And unfortunately Black women athletes not only have to deal with the double standards of race, but gender as well. The world wants us to be ladylike and keep it classy, never showing other sides or emotions. It's exhausting. Why can't we show up as our full selves? And when will we stop being judged by the color of our skin? A basketball game should be about basketball, skills and talent, and chemistry between teammates. Which is why Reese and the rest of the LSU Lady Tigers celebrated their monumental win, despite the outlandish commentary. "I LOVE BEING A BLACK QUEEN," Reese tweeted. She added, "and no I'M NOT KEEPING IT CUTE."

While I'm happy to see the Lady Tigers, a team of mainly Black women players, respectfully turn the other cheek — the notion of taking the high road time and time again in a society that refuses to see us as equals is tiring. Too often, Black women are expected to shrink themselves. But we deserve to celebrate our wins without worry of offending anyone else. My hope is, with a growing interest in women's sports, the world will get to know Black women athletes and see and celebrate them as the talented stars they are — just as they are.