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The Faces of Women's Basketball

I’ve grown up playing basketball. From my first organized basketball league in third grade to my high school varsity team my senior year, it was always made abundantly clear that the girl’s teams were not as important as the boys. We got the older, hand-me-down uniforms, the inconvenient practice times, and the worse facilities. This is a problem across all women’s sports, not just basketball. As someone who’s witnessed this time and time again, it makes me so happy to see that women’s college basketball is finally getting the support and attention it deserves. This year's March Madness final between Iowa and South Carolina had over 4 million more viewers than the men’s final. Not only has viewership increased, but social media engagement and popularity of many of the players have skyrocketed. Players like Caitlin Clark, Paige Bueckers, Hailey Van Lith, and more are part of the reason so many people have been intently following the women’s March Madness tournament this year. While this is a huge step in the right direction, it has also become evident that, despite the large percentage of Black women and women of color that dominate the league, the faces being praised are almost always white women. 

Over the past two years, as women’s basketball has risen in popularity, this issue has become more and more evident. Last year, in the championship game between Iowa, a primarily white team, and LSU, a primarily nonwhite team, this double standard was on full display. Angel Reese, one of LSU’s best players, was criticized for being disrespectful and “classless” after making a “you can’t see me” hand gesture towards Iowa’s star Caitlin Clark during the game, even though Clark had done the same hand gesture in an earlier game and received praise for it. Reese being villainized for the same thing that Clark had been described as tough and passionate about the game for is a perfect example of the double standard that exists not only in sports but other aspects of life for Black women in America. After LSU’s championship win, Jill Biden expressed that she would love to have both the winners and the runner-ups visit the White House. Reese expressed her frustration for this, a very valid frustration, because not only have the runner-ups never received an invite to the White House, but LSU likely would not have been invited if they had lost instead of Iowa. 

This trend has continued to pervade the league this year. LSU has repeatedly been the target of criticism by the media, a concept that’s difficult to separate from the fact that they are a team made up primarily of women of color. In a heavily criticized article published by the LA Times, the LSU team was referred to as “basketball villains,” “Louisiana hot sauce,” and “dirty debutantes” and accused of trying to divide women’s basketball. The white, male reporter who wrote the article compared them to the UCLA team, whom he described as “America’s sweethearts” and “milk and cookies,” while praising them for the class they showed throughout the game. Not only was the article filled with offensive, racially charged commentary, it was sexist and belittling to both teams and the women on them. 

LSU is not the only team that has fallen victim to this double standard. In the championship game this year, South Carolina, a predominantly nonwhite team, beat Iowa, a team led by Caitlin Clark. Iowa, particularly Clark, received tremendous media coverage and social media hype in the lead-up to the game and in the aftermath. While I agree that this attention is well-deserved, it’s been interesting to see that South Carolina, despite an impressive undefeated season and national championship, has received significantly less attention. Across the board, players that the media chooses to idolize have been almost entirely white, yet the teams villainized or overlooked have been made up of Black women or women of color. This reflects a broader trend in America in which Black women are stereotyped, dismissed, and held to a higher standard than anyone else in nearly everything they do. While women everywhere have to face double standards, it is imperative for white women, myself included, to note that despite the challenges we experience as a result of our gender, we are still benefiting from a system that prioritizes us simply as a result of our race. Black women, both in sports and the broader American society, face distinct forms of oppression as a result of the intersection of their identities, and this is something that cannot be ignored, especially as women’s basketball begins to flourish.

 

Claire Stella
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