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The taunt that eclipsed the NCAA women’s basketball championship, explained

Angel Reese, Caitlin Clark, and the respectability politics of women’s basketball.

Angel Reese (R) shows Caitlin Clark (L) where her national championship ring will fit.
Maddie Meyer/Getty Images
Alex Abad-Santos is a senior correspondent who explains what society obsesses over, from Marvel and movies to fitness and skin care. He came to Vox in 2014. Prior to that, he worked at the Atlantic.

On Sunday, April 2, Louisiana State University defeated the University of Iowa and won the NCAA women’s college basketball national championship — an accomplishment that should be one of the biggest women’s sports stories of the year. But all anyone can talk about is what happened in the last few seconds.

In those waning moments, LSU star power forward Angel Reese pointed at her ring finger and waved her own hand in front her face, in the direction of Caitlin Clark, the best player on Iowa’s team. To those familiar with hand gestures in basketball, this was Reese’s way of telling Clark that her team won — that LSU would be getting that championship ring — and that Reese herself was unguardable. To those specifically familiar with Clark and women’s college basketball this season, the hand wave is a call back to Clark’s own dismissal of her previous opponents.

Like any good feud, the more backstory you know, the juicier it gets. As a supporter of women’s rights, this was also the rare moment when you could simultaneously support women’s wrongs.

But some didn’t see Reese’s action as deliciously scandalous, and her actions didn’t happen in a bubble. Her taunt ignited criticisms from haters about her lack of “class” and how Reese, who is Black, should have conducted herself in the face of imminent victory. Her detractors would’ve liked to see her win quietly and politely, without the theatrics. However, this outpouring of concern about how women athletes should behave when they win wasn’t nearly as much of an issue when Clark, who is white, was steamrolling, trash talking, and mocking the competition. Curious!

The tournament was the Caitlin Clark show until Angel Reese and LSU showed up

Historically, the women’s NCAA basketball tournament has been eclipsed by the men’s tournament in terms of coverage, enthusiasm, and, famously, funding and facilities. But this year’s chapter of March Madness included a perfect storm of storylines and events that gave the women’s tournament a spark: a men’s tournament littered with upsets of “power five” schools, an undefeated women’s team in the form of the University of South Carolina, an upstart Louisiana State University team led by eccentric coach Kim Mulkey, and the superstardom of Clark, an electric guard from the University of Iowa.

Clark, a junior, averaged 27.8 points per game, 7.1 rebounds per game, and 8.6 assists per game while shooting at a 47.3 percent clip through the 2022-2023 season. If you don’t follow basketball, those are extremely good numbers. The bigger the numbers in those categories, the better. Further, Clark did all this while leading her team to a top-10 ranking and a 2-seed in the NCAA tournament — her performance and statistics won her the AP Player of the Year honors prior to the national championship.

Caitlin Clark holding up three fingers, which is coincidentally the ideal number of points she likes to score on each possession.
C. Morgan Engel/NCAA Photos via Getty Images

While she was breathtaking all year, Clark shined in the tournament — women’s college basketball’s biggest stage — making history as the leading point scorer, recording a triple-double, and hanging up 40-point outings on team after team. In the Final Four game against undefeated and reigning champion South Carolina, Clark’s 41 points and eight assists helped propel her underdog Hawkeyes to victory.

At the same time, Clark’s confidence could verge on cockiness. Against Louisville, a team known for being physical and playing hounding defense, Clark lit the Cardinals up for 40 points and gestured “you can’t see me.” In the aforementioned game against South Carolina, she waved off a player at the three-point line, signaling that they weren’t a threat. When she hits a “logo” three — nailing a basket from inside Michigan’s giant mid-court M, for example — she knows that’s going into the game’s highlight reel.

This set the stage for Sunday’s national championship game: In the biggest game of the year on the biggest stage of the year, the best player in women’s college basketball — who knows she’s the best player in women’s college basketball — was a game away from what would be the perfect end to her fantastic year. Iowa had just beaten South Carolina which was, on paper, a better team than LSU.

But while the transitive properties of wins and losses can give you a picture of how a game may play out, it’s what happens on the court that matters.

As the game unfolded, LSU played the best basketball of their year. Reese, LSU’s star forward, was gobbling up rebounds left and right, turning misses into points. LSU’s bench also played stellar, hitting three after three. Coupled with some shoddy officiating (an unfortunate constant in women’s college basketball) and a more egregious lack of defense, Clark and Iowa were blown out 102-85.

Angel Reese holds her hand in front of her face in the “can’t see me” gesture.
Angel Reese gives Caitlin Clark a taunt she should recognize.
Maddie Meyer/Getty Images

In the closing seconds, Reese followed Clark around and pointed at her ring finger. Championship games, like weddings and senior years in high school, are punctuated by rings. Reese’s pointing was to indicate that she was getting one of these rings and Clark had zero. Reese also mimicked Clark’s “can’t see me” gesture against Louisville, giving the superstar guard a taste of her own taunting.

After a season of Clark’s goading, the firestorm reaction to Reese’s gestures has eclipsed the game and LSU’s win itself.

Angel Reese, Caitlin Clark, and the impossible double standard

Within moments of LSU’s victory, Reese’s taunts went viral — not unlike Clark’s. They got a very different reception, however. Instead of being seen as cocky or confident or fun, Reese’s actions were seen by a vocal few as poor sportsmanship. Keith Olbermann, a former ESPN SportsCenter anchor and MSNBC commentator, called Reese a “fucking idiot.” Dave Portnoy, owner of Barstool Sports, echoed, calling Reese a “classless piece of shit.”

Olbermann and Portnoy are, by their own accord, grown men. Most of the people negatively chiming in on Reese’s actions are also grown men. They have appointed themselves as arbiters of this 20-year-old woman’s behavior.

In an attempt to plead their case against Reese, they point out that Clark hadn’t actually taunted Reese during the game and that Clark’s antics — that Reese was copying — were actually from the aforementioned Louisville game. If Reese were playing for Louisville or one of the teams that Clark had directly taunted, their argument portends, then it’d be okay for Reese to do what she did.

If Caitlin Clark is trash talking, she’s probably tough enough to take some too.
Maddie Meyer/Getty Images

But the argument of “if this situation were completely different, things would be different” sort of falls apart when you consider that Reese’s detractors were quiet when Clark was doing the taunting. When Clark was gesturing that an entire team of Louisville Cardinals couldn’t guard her, no one was calling her a “classless piece of shit.” Actually, she was praised — ESPN ran an entire segment on Clark calling her “the queen of the clap backs” complete with crown emoji.

Olbermann and Portnoy’s reactions to Reese, and the reactions to their reactions — basketball hall of famer Shaquille O’Neal tweeted Olbermann to “shut your dumb ass up leave angel reese alone” — reflect a bigger pattern of the impossible double standard that Black athletes are held to and how sports media reinforces that standard over and over.

This isn’t a new phenomenon. Reese is just the latest frustrating example.

From Angel Reese to Serena Williams to Simone Biles to multiple instances in the NFL and NBA, Black athletes have not only had to win on the court but do so in a manner that audiences — but in particular grown (white) men like Olbermann and Portnoy — determine respectable. They can’t be too confident or they’ll be seen as arrogant. They can’t be too passionate or they’ll be deemed angry. They can’t talk about their mental health without having their character called into question. Yet, when athletes like Clark or Larry Bird or Novak Djokovic or Tom Brady flash the same behavior, it’s a revered part of their legacy or a passionate commitment to the game.

Female athletes like Reese and Clark are also battling an added, implicit layer of sexism. Some — grown men especially — believe there’s no room for trash talk in women’s sports because women are perceived to be better, gentler, and above the fray. Meanwhile, trash talking and vitriol are seen as an established part of men’s sports and its most compelling rivalries. This stripe of benevolent sexism undercuts competitors like Clark and Reese who are conducting themselves with more dignity and toughness than how they’re being talked about.

When asked about Reese’s taunting, Clark played it off. “I have no idea, I was just trying to get to the handshake line,” Clark said in a post-game interview, seemingly taking the loss in stride. “All the credit in the world to LSU ... They deserved it. They had a tremendous season. [Coach] Kim Mulkey ... only said really kind things to me in the handshake line.”

Later, in an interview with SportsCenter on April 4, Clark supported Reese’s actions, speaking about how emotion and rivalries are good for women’s basketball. “I’m just lucky enough that I get to play this game and have emotion and wear it on my sleeves, and so does everyone else,” Clark said. “That should never be torn down or never be criticized. I believe that’s what makes this game so fun. That’s what draws people to this game.”

Clark added, “I don’t think Angel should be criticized at all.”

Talking to reporters on April 2, Reese defended her actions.

“I don’t fit in the box that you all want me to be in. I’m too hood, I’m too ghetto. You told me that all year. But when other people do it, y’all don’t say nothing,” Reese said, explaining that she may have gotten caught up in the moment. “So this is for the girls that look like me, that want to speak up on what they believe in. It’s unapologetically you ... It was bigger than me tonight.”

If Clark and Reese can handle this spat themselves, everyone watching and commenting should be able to follow their leads. No one directly involved is calling foul. Perhaps the thing both these women can teach us is that we need to be better at accepting that sports — regardless of gender or race — are incredibly petty events. They’re a place for taunting and smack talk, alongside the higher expressions of our character. Clark, Reese, Iowa, and LSU have no problem with it. Maybe we — grown men especially — could be better at just letting them play.

Update, April 4, 3 pm ET: This piece was originally published on April 3 and has been updated with Caitlin Clark’s remarks on Angel Reese.