Bits and Pieces- Sport, Part I
LSU/Iowa- Angel Reese and Caitlin Clark
I went back and forth about writing anything on the Angel Reese v Caitlin Clark controversy because it seemed too blown out of proportion. But here I am, chiming in, because I think it touches on much deeper racial issues, not just in sport, but in American society overall.
A quick recap, for when this blog is time capsuled into space and rediscovered hundreds of years from now: in the NCAA Women’s Basketball Championship game, Louisiana State University forward Angel Reese “taunted” Iowa’s star guard Caitlin Clark as the clock wound down on LSU’s eventual victory. Reese is African American, Clark is white. My guess is more words have been written (including these) about this minor part of the championship game than the game itself, which is a shame because Clark is a generational talent and Reese won the MVP award.
The prevailing narrative is that Reese was disrespectful, unsportsmanlike. Many people trashed her who have probably never watched a basketball game played by women in their lives, but they saw an opportunity to comment on the state of sports, race, America, you name it. This theme dominated not just sports talk radio and TV, but everyday conversations among sports fans. I followed one particular feed on Facebook where a high school classmate of mine commented on how Reese should be “ashamed of herself”. Post after post excoriated her for insulting not just Clark, but the game itself. “There’s no place for that garbage in basketball” was one example. It appears to me that these people don’t follow basketball, where trash talking is an art form…
It also appears that they did not see Clark make the same gesture throughout the NCAA tournament as she scorched each team she came across. But even if they had seen it, I believe they would have seen it through a different lens. When white athletes engage in what some call “unsportsmanlike” behavior, they are often called “competitive” and “fiery”, whereas African American athletes are “showboating” and “thugs”. After the game, Reese was quick to point this out, saying “I don’t fit in the box that y’all want me to be in. I’m too hood, I’m too ghetto, y’all told me that all year. When other people do it, y’all don’t say nothing.”
But this should not come as a surprise, since sport has always been a contested terrain on issues of race, social class, gender and sexuality. Interestingly, this notion of “sportsmanship” touches on both race and gender in this case. 100 years ago, the sociologists William I. Thomas and Florian Znaniecki wrote,
“a person has to take social meanings into account and interpret his (sic) experience not exclusively in terms of his own needs and wishes but also in terms of the traditions, customs, beliefs, and aspirations of his social milieu.”
And the “social meanings” in this case are that sport has always been constructed by those in power. Historically marginalized peoples are viewed as outside the norm since the norm has been imposed on them, not created by or with them.
The idea of sportsmanship is a case in point. There is no exact definition of the term agreed upon by all, but the Sportsmanship Brotherhood, founded in New York in 1929, provides many of the contemporary components of the notion. While many would agree with some of the tenets - no one should play the game with the specific intent to cause others physical harm - other tenets are based more on patrician concerns. If sportsmanship is how “sportsmen” should act, well who are the “sportsmen”? Most of the American history of this term comes from the landed gentry of England, and the code of behavior expected of those within that class.
Taken in this light, contemporary athletes of color are bound to be seen as “other”, outside the prescribed definitions of appropriate athletic participation. Much has been written about black bodies and their celebration and restriction in society- see the work of Richard Majors, Edith Folb, and Vernon Andrews, among others- and what we find is a racial contestation over bodies, over expressive behavior, and over normative and non-normative action.
My former guest, the sociologist Jay Coakley, defined a society’s race logic as “a complex, widespread racial ideology in which racial backgrounds define athletic careers, success, and abilities”. The Angel Reese/Caitlin Clark controversy must be viewed in this light. Almost all the negative views of Angel Reese that I came across were from white commentators, both within the sports media world and outside of it. This is essentially a white reading of African American bodily expression, and since whites have the power to normalize, reprimand or reward behavior, Reese’s actions were viewed as deplorable, and Caitlin Clarks’ similar actions were ignored.
Let me also point out that I am using the word “controversy” here loosely. Everyone seemed a lot more upset about the issue than Caitlin Clark and Angel Reese did. Reese defended herself when relentlessly attacked about it. And Clark refused to buy into the right-wing narrative that folks were spinning. Asked time and again if Reese should apologize to her, Clark said,
“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.”
I applaud them both for how they navigated being in the spotlight for reasons they probably did not expect. And, unwittingly, they became yet another example of the institution of sport not just reflecting society but constructing it as well. Another former guest, the sportswriter Dave Zirin, told me that the myth of sports is they are based on inclusion, when in fact, they’ve always been based on exclusion. The sportsmanship standards we hold athletes of color to, do not mirror the expectations placed on the dominant group. In this way, sport isn’t a unique component of the American experience, but rather a manifestation of long held race and gender ideologies serving to reinforce the status quo by marginalizing women and people of color as outsiders.