Racial controversy in athletics

Although this year’s NCAA Women’s Basketball Championship marked a milestone for women’s sports, with viewership shattering previous records, these women’s achievements in the tournament did not remain at the forefront of all the attention. Rather, the media’s flawed reporting displayed damaging and harmful racial bias, dictating the narrative around the event.

March Madness’ Most Outstanding Player, LSU star Angel Reese, was heavily criticized during the tournament for a gesture made toward Iowa’s leading scorer, Caitlyn Clark. During the game, Reese approached Clark, while waving an open hand over her face and pointing to her ring finger—a gesture referencing wrestler John Cena’s “you can’t see me” sentiment and in reference to her future championship ring.   

Sports journalists and critics were swift to respond to this gesture, calling Reese, who is Black, “ghetto,” “classless” and “an idiot.” However, LSU fans were equally quick to point out that Clark, a white athlete widely known for her expansive trash talk, had made a similar gesture previously in the tournament. Yet Clark’s paralleled actions were not at all acknowledged by the media. 

These arguments about such a transient gesture opened up a much larger conversation on social media about our evident bias in sharing stories about white and Black athletes. 

Historically, Black athletes have been widely criticized for any actions pointing toward unsportsmanlike conduct. And when Black athletes have been described as “aggressive” or “angry,” white athletes have been praised for the same actions, called “passionate” or “powerful.”

In every aspect of our lives, the words we use are impactful. Especially in the media, misrepresentation can cause a trickle-down effect in society, perpetuating stereotypes by providing younger generations with a skewed lens by which they learn to view the world. 

Through the racial stereotyping of our athletes, we diminish the achievements of the individual and take away from what they have accomplished. The primary focus of the tournament should have been the amazing performances by these female athletes, and their overcoming of countless barriers for women’s athletics. Shifting the dialogue to communicate racial stereotypes not only demeans the Black community, but also regresses women’s athletic accomplishments as a whole. 

The dialogue perpetrated reduces the stories of accomplished athletes, such as Reese and Clark, in order to sell the fabrication of an overdone racial rivalry—where the white athlete is victimized and the Black athlete is volatile. However, as evident through the NCAA Tournament, neither of these things are true. Both Reese and Clark have spoken up about the narrative, each praising the other and reeling the story back into one where both their accomplishments are recognized and respected.

In a world that demands to see color, we must stop viewing sports in Black and white. While it is important to consciously communicate stories where race is a factor, it is also important to eradicate the dialogue surrounding stories where it is not. Filtering out the noise in order to fully understand the relevance of a story is a skill that we, as everyday consumers of media, must develop in order to best respond and comprehend information.