Louisiana State University’s NCAA championship victory didn’t feel secure until Kateri Poole hit a dagger of a three-pointer with about a minute and 11 seconds left in the game, allowing me to unclench my jaw and scroll through social media. My eyes had been glued to the TV for the past two hours, but it was on Twitter that I saw the hand gesture the world hasn’t stopped talking about all week: LSU star forward Angel Reese, the Bayou Barbie herself, waving her hand and pointing to her ring finger — where her championship ring would go — in front of the tournament darling Iowa point guard Caitlin Clark á la WWE performer John Cena, who made the now infamous “you can’t see me” hand motion a viral meme. Clark had been waving her hand in the same way as Iowa left opponents in their dust, so it was only natural that when LSU claimed their victory, Reese threw Clark’s own taunt right back at her. It was classic trash talking, a tradition as old as MJ’s first pair of Jordans.
As a former athlete and current sports writer, I have a high tolerance for the swagger and trash talk that (rightly!) ensues when egos are inflated by the approaching scent of victory and free-flowing endorphins. There was nothing new in Reese’s gesture. Trash talking is part of the game. But as I watched the 11-second clip a second time, and then a third, I found myself reveling in a new detail each time: her searing gaze, that fresh set of dark-tipped nails (even if you’ve only caught a few minutes of an LSU game before that final, you know Reese stays ready with her looks), the measured and delicate distance she kept from Clark all the while so as not to be slapped with a technical foul for taunting another player. It was, I realized by the time I approached a high double-digit view count, one of the more beautifully cathartic stunts I’d seen in a while, at once extra and completely earned, especially because Clark had doled out the same thing to much acclaim — including from Cena himself — to Louisville in the Elite Eight. There’s nothing more satisfying than giving someone a taste of what they’ve been dishing out.
In fact, I was so raptured by Reese that it was only when I saw people defending her on social media that I realized she was being criticized for it. Only when I saw someone turn the phrase “classless piece of shit” into a meme did I discover, through the context clues one must employ to get to the source of a viral moment, that those words had initially been directed at Reese, who was crowned the NCAA Championship MVP and no doubt returned to Baton Rouge with a deluge of fresh NIL deals in her inbox. People were actually chastising Reese — calling her a “fucking idiot” and implying she wasn’t “raised right — for being a ruthless competitor, something her white opponents are praised for.
How naive of me to assume that Reese, a supremely talented Black athlete, would be granted space to publicly embody her joy and indulge Clark — and us, the viewers — in her swagger.
Because the only thing more despicable than being young, gifted, and Black in this country is to be proud of those things. The paradox of our bodies being relegated to invisibility or thrust into hypervisibility is inhumane enough — because rarely are we ever able to simply exist as Black woman, to just be seen. The pearl-clutching cries for Reese to practice decorum and grace came from the same knuckle-dragging crowd that would otherwise foam at the mouth with derogations about women’s sports being less competitive or entertaining than men’s. The backlash to Reese triggered the same emotional response I feel when I sense I’m being gaslit. I watched as Reese and the rest of the victorious LSU team lost themselves in the rapture of the moment after the final buzzer, but I could already feel myself distracted by the unending work of defending and protecting Reese’s humanity as if it were my own. As if it were our own.
The only thing more despicable than being young, gifted, and Black in this country is to be proud of those things.
In the past week, the discourse around Reese’s flaunting has eclipsed the championship itself — which is a shame, because the basketball was superb, belied by a clear mutual respect between two teams who very much deserved to face off in an arena where ticket prices started at $150, compared to $39 for the men’s final. (The women’s championship also attracted a record-breaking 9.9 million viewers on average, making it the most-watched college sporting event ever on ESPN+.) And yes, Reese was the epitome of cool in the post-game press conference when she responded to comments she’s seen on social media claiming she’s too aggressive, too hood, not lady-like, and far from the desired image of a college women’s basketball player. She’s been defending her right to talk trash as an athlete throughout the season — and even when she was still in high school, after catching word that a white coach at a rival school said she had “zero humility or impulse control,” and that she wasn’t talented, but “genetically blessed.” And still, Reese broke records, inked deals, and captured the attention of everyone from Lil Wayne to Gabrielle Union and Shaq, with a lash game as tough as her offensive rebounds.
There’s a reason Reese sent so many people spiraling into the blue-lit daze of social media vitriol Sunday night (and virtually every night since): Reese wants us to watch her. Rather than shy away from the gaze, she not only invites it, but tells us exactly where to direct our eyes. She has complete ownership of her strong, 6’3” frame; it’s apparent in the thigh she flashes from her scrunched up basketball shorts, and the flip of her cascading sew-ins when she celebrates with her teammates. And, as we all saw on Sunday when she sauntered up to Clark in the final minutes of the final, she has no fear or shame in letting us know who the hell she is. And that’s precisely what’s fueling these efforts to tear her down.
It didn’t stop there. On Monday, First Lady Jill Biden extended her invitation to the White House to LSU and Iowa, upending a tradition that has been offered exclusively to the winning team of a tournament. At best, the move was shrouded in “participation trophy” energy, which, frankly, was insulting to Iowa. At worst, it called forth past attempts to dilute Black excellence — again, in order to soothe fears of what might happen if and when Black people are publicly acknowledged for, and own, their greatness.
You needn’t have been following Angel Reese’s career for very long to guess how she felt about that. After calling First Lady Biden’s offer a “joke” — preceded by three side-rolling laughing emojis, no less — she elaborated in an hour-long interview on the “I Am Athlete” podcast.
“If we were to lose, we would not be getting invited to the White House,” she declared, wondering aloud whether her hand gesture seen round the world made the First Lady feel obliged to intervene in order to promote good sportsmanship.
Together with Simone Biles, Naomi Osaka, and [Serena] Williams, Reese joins an ever-growing class of Black women athletes who have been punished for being unafraid to speak out, opt out, or express themselves however they please.
“We’ll go to the Obamas’. We’ll see Michelle. We’ll see Barack,” she said, unleashing another barrage of criticism for refusing to accept the First Lady’s apology, which Reese said came after “a lot of phone calls.” The criticism, some of it from the same people who were praising Reese just days prior, proved that the actions of Black women athletes are policed no matter what they say, but especially when you have the unapologetic energy of Reese, people can’t wait to take you down a peg.
In the same interview, Reese added that Biden had wanted to visit the Tigers’ locker room to wish the team good luck ahead of the championship game, as she reportedly did with Iowa, but that the team declined.
“I think [President] Joe Biden had put somebody else to win the national championship. He didn’t even put us on his bracket to get out of Baton Rouge, so I was like, ‘Bet.’” Indeed, the president had predicted the 14th-ranked Jackson State to upset third-ranked LSU in his bracket.
It was only when Clark agreed that Reese shouldn’t have been criticized for celebrating that the rhetoric appeared to simmer down, a bittersweet pseudo-conclusion that underscores the prioritization of white victimhood — even when it isn’t actually warranted.
“You know, Angel is a tremendous, tremendous player. I have nothing but respect for her. I love her game — the way she rebounds the ball, scores the ball, is absolutely incredible,” Clark said, adding that she felt the LSU Tigers should be able to enjoy their White House invitation on their own.
As I see the way Reese has been treated this week, it’s hard not to think of Serena Williams. From her crip walk celebration at the 2012 London Olympics, to her smooth shutdown of a reporter who had the audacity to ask her why she wasn’t smiling during a post-match press conference, to the controversy over her iconic black catsuit at the French Open in 2018, to the relentless criticism she faced for her reaction to losing to Naomi Osaka in the 2018 US Open, Williams’ illustrious career has been characterized as much by her supremacy on the court as her navigation of and resistance to the perceived threat of her greatness. Her unwavering determination to show up to every competition as her full, unapologetic self is as much as her legacy as her 23 grand slam titles.
Of course, there are obvious differences between Williams and Reese: for starters, Williams won her first major tournament at 17 (Reese is 20), and did not come up in the age of social media as Reese did. But the treatment of both athletes has undoubtedly been informed by their powerful statures, which are often either exoticized or masculinized (sometimes both) when they belong to Black women. They also both grew up in predominantly Black areas; Compton for Williams, Baltimore for Reese, and those roots are clearly evident in the particular confidence with which they carry themselves. Together with Simone Biles, Naomi Osaka, and Williams, Reese joins an ever-growing class of Black women athletes who have been punished for being unafraid to speak out, opt out, or express themselves however they please.
My first emotional response to Reese’s hand-waving, before the negative reactions, was one of freedom and release. What Reese did is something I imagine so many Black women wish they could do more often: be their full selves without adhering to bullshit respectability politics. Reese’s taunt felt like an offering, and I can’t wait to use the gif version of this moment for years to come. I’ll send it to friends as they text me during work calls where they’re being mansplained or talked over, or as a well to tap into myself. Angel Reese is a reminder now cemented into our collective consciousness that Black women can and deserve to take up every bit of space we can.