It’s as clear as black and white. I’m referring to the reaction that star basketball player Angel Reese received after taunting opposing star Caitlin Clark in last Sunday’s NCAA Women’s Championship game. Reese is Black and plays for the LSU Tigers. Clark is white and plays for the University of Iowa, whom LSU defeated.
Clark is a dominant athlete – and has the swagger that often accompanies such prowess. Reese is an outstanding baller in her own right (who also flaunts her skill). Both players performed masterfully throughout the tournament, which contributed to record viewership.
Unfortunately, the Tigers’ conquest is somewhat overshadowed by the controversy that followed Reese’s taunting of Clark near the end of the title game. Specifically, Reese employed John Cena’s famous “you can’t see me” gesture. She also followed Clark for a few steps and pointed to the finger on which she’d wear her championship ring. This resulted in Reese being called “everything but a child of God” (as we say in church).
To be clear, Clark has a history of taunting opposing players, including in this tournament. Some people have alleged that the “difference” is that Clark only does so in front of her teammates. Yet, a review of several of her games proves that just isn’t the case. For example, Clark told a Louisville player to “shut up” because her team was losing by 15 points. She also sarcastically “waved off” a South Carolina player in the Final Four, essentially daring her to shoot a three-pointer. Perhaps most relevantly, Clark taunted an opposing player on the court with the “you can’t see me” move. (Cena himself tweeted his approval).
Don’t take my word for it; all of this can easily be accessed online. (Then again, millions of Americans don’t believe what they see – especially during the last few years). If Clark received criticism for these actions, it was rare and muted. Certainly, no one questioned her “character,” as has repeatedly occurred with Reese. Fortunately, in response to the firestorm, Clark said: “I don’t think that Angel should be criticized at all” for taunting her. Apparently, she isn’t the damsel in distress that she’s been made out to be.
For the record, trash talking has always been a part of sports – whether in the driveway, at the YMCA, in colleges, or on professional fields and courts. Also, for the record, I’m a fan of trash talking. Thus, I have no problem with Clark or Reese. My problem is with the amnesia and hypocrisy that too frequently attach to Black athletes, who are lambasted for doing the same things that white athletes do. (Larry Bird is widely considered to be the NBA’s most prolific trash talker, but is never criticized for that distinction). Haranguing and even accosting Black athletes – often for merely being Black – is an outgrowth of white Americans’ racial animosity.
The fact is that this controversy is infinitely bigger than these two young women. It started long before Clark and Reese – or even their grandparents – were born. Millions of people keep trying to wish away this nation’s racism by banning “CRT” (which rarely is CRT) and by mindlessly using the word “woke” as a magical incantation to ward off societal change. That’s much easier than confronting our painful truths.
This controversy is merely another beachhead in America’s endless uncivil war regarding race. We remember the reaction to John Carlos and Tommie Smith on the Olympic podium. We remember that Bird was a “very hard worker” who had a “high basketball IQ,” whereas Magic Johnson was “street smart” and “naturally gifted.” We remember the disparaging remarks about the early 90s UNLV Runnin’ Rebels because of their style of play – and the remarks about the Fab Five because of their style of shorts. And, of course, we know the disgusting way in which Serena Williams is repeatedly disrespected.
Outside of sports, we remember the attempted embarrassment of Vanessa Williams when she became the first Black Miss America. We remember how the elegant, accomplished, and highly educated Michelle Obama was talked about in comparison to Melania Trump (who is, evidently, a fan of Mrs. Obama’s speeches).
If you’re offended by Angel Reese’s actions, but not by these examples – and the thousands of others that I could reference – you’re part of the problem. Attacking Reese’s “character” is simply coded language for… you know what. Saying that this is “not about race” won’t fly. In the words of James Baldwin (who in turn quoted Ike and Tina Turner), “I can’t believe what you say because I see what you do.”
Larry Smith is a community leader. The views expressed are his own. Contact him at email@example.com.