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Keeping that same energy: Why Black women ball players are criticized differently

ADRIAN FLORIDO, HOST:

Yesterday afternoon, the game lived up to the hype. The NCAA women's finals were electric, ending with the LSU Tigers beating the Iowa Hawkeyes in a convincing fashion - 102-85. Both teams had a slew of strong starters. Iowa's Caitlin Clark beat all kinds of college basketball records despite her loss. But LSU's dominating performance is now being overshadowed by a viral gesture that LSU champion Angel Reese made just as her team was about to clinch the title. People on Twitter went nuts, and the response to the gesture has sparked a heated debate about race and double standards in women's basketball. Bill Rhoden wrote about this while covering the national championship game in Dallas for ESPN's Andscape. He joins us now. Bill, welcome.

BILL RHODEN: Hey. How are you?

FLORIDO: I'm doing well, thanks. Can you describe this gesture, which LSU's Angel Reese, who is Black, made toward Iowa's Caitlin Clark, who is white?

RHODEN: Yeah. Well, the gesture's that you take your hand, and you wave it in front of your face - like, there's no defense. Get this right, Adrian, 'cause you're going to have to do it when you play your pick-up basketball game.

FLORIDO: (Laughter).

RHODEN: So that's what it meant. Like I said, I had been seeing Caitlin do it. She did it throughout the game Friday against South Carolina because, hey, she scores 41 points, so she was doing it a lot. But I think the issue was that when Angel Reese did it, it was as the game was winding down, and it was clear that LSU was going to win. She basically walked toward Clark, making sure that she saw it, but also pointed to her ring finger, signifying that she was about to get a championship ring. So I think the issue here was why did this trash talking now become a thing when LSU's star player - an African American woman - do it? So it was a whole thing of double standards that kind of exploded.

FLORIDO: One of the debates that has exploded is about the racial dynamics of this moment. But before we get to that, let's start with gender and the fact that this was a women's game. And in a sport like basketball, where trash talk is sort of baked into the culture of play, why are women ballplayers being picked apart?

RHODEN: If there were two men's teams playing, this probably wouldn't even be an issue. But the problem is women are still imprisoned in this cage that's largely of a male making. You're not supposed to be sweat-getters and be competitors and pushing and shoving and talking trash and going back and forth - not considered, quote-unquote, "ladylike." And then the other layer of that, of course - and that's where white women are put on this pedestal - chained to this pedestal. Black women have always been portrayed in white media as the sweat-getters - you know, women who are rough and tough and not accorded the ladylike, quote-unquote, "standard" as their white counterparts. So you had all of this bundled up.

FLORIDO: Angel Reese and her whole team were on fire last night. LSU controlled the entire game. And afterward, Reese said, quote, "I was critiqued for who I was. I'm too 'hood. I'm too ghetto." But when others do mimic Reese's style, they're praised. Can you speak to that?

RHODEN: Yeah. I mean, I think it's one of those great moments. I call it a Muhammad Ali moment. Remember, she's talking to a largely white press, and she puts it front and center. She puts it right in their lap. It was a very powerful, powerful statement that put everybody on notice. And that's what I think set everybody off because a number of people in that room, in that large press room and probably watching globally, had to really start doing some soul-searching because it was a double standard.

FLORIDO: I've been speaking with Bill Rhoden. He's a columnist with ESPN's Andscape. Thanks so much for your time.

RHODEN: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Jason Fuller
Adrian Florido
Adrian Florido is a national correspondent for NPR covering race and identity in America.
Justine Kenin
Justine Kenin is an editor on All Things Considered. She joined NPR in 1999 as an intern. Nothing makes her happier than getting a book in the right reader's hands – most especially her own.