In a less-sexist version of this country, we would all be talking about the number 9.9 million. That was the size of the television and streaming audience watching the NCAA Women’s Basketball Finals between Iowa and victorious LSU. It was 12.6 million at its peak—that’s more than watched the World Series. One wonders if in the wildest dreams of Lusia Harris and Nancy Lieberman, they ever saw a day when the game they made would be relished by so many. And yet in these ailing United States, the commentariat has spent days—in highly overheated fashion—debating whether LSU star Angel Reese, a Black woman, should have made a “you can’t see me” gesture to Iowa’s galactically talented guard Caitlin Clark, who is white, as the fourth-quarter clock wound down. The gesture is one Clark has made famous in hoops circles by using in previous games.
I don’t want to rehash what happened next: loathsome right-wing men, mostly white, profanely criticizing Reese; Reese standing up for herself with raw, explicitly anti-racist confidence; more rage then ensuing because she refused to buckle; Jill Biden’s tin ear when she initially broke tradition by inviting both teams to the White House, something that might have offended Iowa more than LSU; more rage, more hot air; and in what felt like a coordinated effort from the most wretched corners of the sports commentariat, people who two weeks ago did not know who Clark was rushing to her defense and attempting to turn her into their latest fragile white martyr—a casualty of the confidence of a Black woman, a confidence that they wanted to break.
The ugliness of it all, bizarrely, is a testament to the greatness of Reese and Clark, their respective teams in Baton Rouge and Iowa City, and that number: 9.9 million. This game mattered and that made right-wing parasites attach themselves, like barnacles, to the conversation. That they had never before expressed any interest in women’s sports—beyond efforts to keep trans kids off their teams—was a detail left out by many of the think pieces that followed.
But now that the aforementioned hot air has largely passed, there is a lesson in all of this that is worth teasing out. The reason this story is petering out is quite simply that Clark was not willing to play the right wing’s game. In a country where a killer like Kyle Rittenhouse can make a living by showing up for photos ops at closed-door conferences, there is profit in playing to right-wing grievances. But when Clark was asked—repeatedly—whether she wanted an apology from Reese or to have Iowa visit the White House with LSU, her responses gave no quarter to the idea that Reese did anything wrong or that Clark needed support from anyone who thinks she did.
“I don’t think Angel should be criticized at all,” said Clark.
“I’m just one that competes, and she competed. I think everybody knew there was going to be a little trash talk in the entire tournament. It’s not just me and Angel.
“We’re all competitive. We all show our emotions in a different way. 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. I’m a big fan of her and even the entire LSU team. They played an amazing game.”
When asked by ESPN if Iowa would accept Jill Biden’s invitation to the White House she said,
“That’s for LSU. They should enjoy every single second of being the champion. I think that’s theirs to do. I don’t think runner-ups usually go to the White House. LSU should enjoy that moment for them. And congratulations, obviously; they deserve to go there. Maybe I could go to the White House [someday] on different terms.”
But Clark’s greatest clapback was against those who believe that the emotions showed by Reese and others on LSU were inappropriate in the women’s game. That this double standard with men was blatantly obvious was not enough to stop them from saying it. Even the great Charles Barkley, who made his reputation by playing with an unbridled intensity, called the emotions on display “unfortunate.” If Charles Barkley is reaching for the fainting couch, you know that way too many men in the basketball world have lost the plot.
To this, Clark said,
“I’m just lucky enough that I get to play this game and have emotion and wear it on my sleeve, and so does everybody else. So that should never be torn down. That should never be criticized because I believe that’s what makes this game so fun. That’s what draws people to this game. That’s how I’m going to continue to play. That’s how every girl should continue to play.”
Clark has provided a lesson here for white athletes: You don’t need to play the roles that the media tries to assign to you. You don’t need to ally yourself with “supporters” who previously have shown no interest in you or your sport. You don’t need to use your privilege to strike down at your Black opponents just because you can. In fact, it takes far more courage to do Clark did: support true hoopers and resist all efforts by both the mainstream media and bad actors to divide and damage women’s sports. Clark resisted MAGA’s siren song. If the sports world doesn’t want to be crushed under the weight of disunity and reaction, white athletes will need to play their part, learn from Caitlin Clark, and act accordingly.