Big controversy in the wake of Sunday’s NCAA women’s basketball championship. How do I know it’s big? It’s a sports story, and NPR is covering it.
The question is, why?
In case you’ve managed to miss it: Mimicking a taunting gesture that Iowa basketball star Caitlin Clark deployed in an earlier game in the tournament against Louisville, LSU star Angel Reese taunted Clark after LSU’s victory.
Apparently unsatisfied with Clark’s non-reaction, Reese also pointed to her ring finger, indicating she’d be getting a ring in victory, and Clark would not be getting one in defeat. And now the free world is locked into a debate about whether Reese’s and Clark’s gestures were equivalent or not, and why only one of them was condemned. Or as NPR’s story has it, “How a hand gesture dominated a NCAA title game and revealed a double standard.” About race, the NPR story implied: “Reese is Black and Clark is white.”
In fact, the hand gesture did not dominate the game. And if it revealed a double standard, it’s about gender in sports as much as about race, it seems to me—notwithstanding Reese’s comments afterward, to the effect that she felt unfairly judged all season for being “too hood” and “too ghetto,” and that her confrontation of Clark was “for the girls that look like me.”
I’ve been a self-appointed evangelizer in my own circles for Clark ever since I saw her play last year, and I’ve taken a small but still embarrassing measure of pride that I “called it,” and that she has been so great this year and taken Iowa so far. I love how she plays—supremely confident, right on the hairy edge of cocky and occasionally going over it, just like my other hoops hero Steph Curry—and I think she’s the best all-around women’s basketball player I have ever seen.
About which LSU coach Kim Mulkey agreed, after seeing Clark play in the semifinal on Friday night. “I’ve never seen a player—I don’t like to use the word never, but I don’t know that I’ve ever seen a player that can do what Caitlin does,” Mulkey said, adding, “I couldn’t take my eyes off of her.” That might have pissed Reese off too, coming from her own coach.
But regardless of the source of Reese’s antipathy toward Clark, would we be making quite such a big deal of this if one of the men’s players did it to another? In that case, I don’t think the story would gotten further than the dumb daily sports debate shows.
I think it’s that we’re upset seeing women athletes act this way.
It’s not that I question your attitude towards women in sports, it’s that I’ve come to very much distrust my own:
By turns, I am:
• Paternally protective of women athletes. No, I did not have a sense of humor about the Tiger Woods/Justin Thomas tampon incident, and some of my guy friends thought I was being brittle about it. Whatever, dudes: As I never let you forget, I once worked out for a whole preseason with a women’s professional football team. Also, I have a daughter on a Division I college soccer team. I can’t help feeling that if Tiger Woods or my buddies understood what I do about the intensity with which I’ve seen women play sports, they wouldn’t equate women athletes with wimpiness, and they’d be contemptuous of anyone who does. Yes, I’m a self-righteous nightmare.
• Sentimental to the point of maudlin about the passion that women bring to their games, and the recognition women’s sports get in fits and starts. There’s a documentary about the 1999 Women’s World Cup team called Dare to Dream, that causes my eyes to leak water like a Triumph motorcycle leaks oil, from the opening to the closing credits. The jocular comaraderie, the open joy and love those women show for one another have moved me permanently and given me this vague but persistent hope that maybe women sports teams model a better way of—(be right back, I need to barf).
• And perpetually amazed that women athletes are indeed just as madly competitive as men—and thus, as asshole-ish as men, too. I find myself taken aback all the time by my daughter’s accounts of the violent fierceness that these women show, not just against opponents in games, but against one another in practice. My daughter has to remind me all the time that Dare to Dream probably doesn’t show everything. “Dad,” she said to me the other day patiently, “they don’t show how they talk to each other at practice.”
In the Chicago city championship game her senior year of high school, my daughter was being taunted by a section full of boys from the opposing school. “Over-rated! Over-rated! Over-rated!” the boys chanted down at her, along with at least one insult more personal than that. After enduring that for part of the first half, she snaked through the defense right in front of those boys, scored the game’s first goal, ran past them and then turned and faced them and, while walking backwards, held her hands high and flipped them both middle fingers.
The refs didn’t see the gesture, but many others in the stadium did, and I was embarrassed—until I saw that my wife and my sister were feeling no such compunction, and upon further review, I figured my daughter’s late grandmothers both would have roared their approval. Or maybe they smiled in heaven, and lit a cigarette. So I decided to side with them (rather than with my late father, who would have been mortified). Why am I relying on my dead ancestors to figure out how I feel about my own daughter’s behavior on a soccer field? Clearly, because I can’t rely on my own contradictory instincts and feelings on the subject.
Judging by the reaction to the Reese/Clark thing, I’m not the only one.
I do wish Reese hadn’t mocked Clark, because the conversation that ensued mars the memory of what was a glorious women’s tournament. Just as my daughter’s gesture would have, had she been thrown out of the most important game of her life.
I wish Reese had found a more persuasive way to express what was clearly deep and accumulated rage. And maybe she does too, despite her postgame bluster. And yes, I wish Caitlin Clark could be every bit the athletic assassin she is, but elegantly stoic in the process.
But women do strange things in the terrible heat, under the terrible pressure, in the terrible passion, of big-league athletic competition in the context of a ridiculously sports-deranged society.
Just like men, I guess.