Male Sports Commentators Should Shut Up and Let Women Athletes Play—Starting With Angel Reese

There are a lot of teams with star power and the potential to contend for a title. Why limit these athletes with our expectations for women?

Angel Reese of the LSU Lady Tigers, and Caitlin Clark and Gabbie Marshall of the Iowa Hawkeyes, vie for position under the basket during the 2023 NCAA Women’s Basketball Tournament National Championship at American Airlines Center on April 2, 2023, in Dallas. (Ben Solomon / NCAA Photos via Getty Images)

Twitter is all atwitter about Angel Reese and Caitlin Clark and that now infamous taunt.

In case you missed it, the NCAA women’s March Madness tournament just broke all records for attendance and TV viewership. But what pundits and fans have been talking about is LSU forward Angel Reese’s giving Iowa’s sharp-shooting National Player of the Year Caitlin Clark hell with a couple of hand gestures.

Toward the end of the game, Reese gave Clark the “You can’t see me” gesture—the same one Clark gave Louisville’s Hailey Van Lith in the quarter-final game. (The move is said to have been started by WWE-star-turned-actor John Cena.) Reese followed Clark, pointing to the ring finger where Reese will wear her national championship ring, even continuing her taunt after LSU won the game.

The clips have made all the media. Announcers, many of whom have never given a fig about women’s basketball, are suddenly judging Reese as classless and a “fucking idiot.”

Did I mention Reese, like most of LSU’s team is Black, and Clark, like most of Iowa’s team, is white? Racial politics at work, anyone? After all, Clark had also said to a Louisville player during that same game, “You’re down by 15 points. Shut up.” That just made her intense and fearless, according to commentators.

Reese also pointed out that Clark disrespected fellow SEC Gamecocks player Raven Johnson by waving her off (described as  “hilarious disrespect” by one sportswriter) and daring her to take a shot—which she did and put down 13 points. Reese said she taunted Clark in response to the disrespect of Clark’s taunts.

A lot of white people freaked out. Black people have mostly defended Reese, understanding the racially coded language used against her.

Two-time national championship-winning coach Dawn Staley took to the mic after Friday’s loss to Iowa to talk about the kind of language used to describe her mostly Black players. “We’re not bar fighters. We’re not thugs. We’re not monkeys. We’re not street fighters,” she said, decrying the racist language used about her team by media and fans.

Now, of course, had men done all of this taunting, we wouldn’t be talking about it nearly as much as we would the display of basketball prowess we saw in that game. Records were broken. Players made shots you had to admire. The officiating was terrible, putting both Reese and Clark on the bench for significant stretches of time, but LSU’s bench outplayed Iowa’s, and that made the difference. We got to see women from the second string making the most of their moments. What’s not to love in this story?

After all, no one threw a punch. No one (that we heard on national TV) called anyone else the ugly names we know men call women and queer folks and straight men they want to insult. Reese didn’t flip Clark off. Clark didn’t make any obscene gestures. As taunts go, these were pretty mild. Newsworthy, maybe, if we really think women are supposed to play elite sports so differently from men. Do we still really expect them to “act like ladies” on the court when they can shoot the lights out, take a full-on charge, and set a pick that knocks a defender flat on her back?

Granted, I’m not a fan of taunting by any athletes. But I didn’t grow up with social media that encourages back-and-forth. I’m not an elite athlete who grew up aspiring to play in the WNBA with the likes of Sylvia Fowles or Diana Taurasi. Neither did most of the commentators, especially the men, who are expressing such outrage at Reese.

She remains unapologetic. Clark hasn’t apologized for her taunts either. I’m with them on this one—not because I hope women’s basketball becomes just like men’s, but because the taunts were an authentic reflection in the moment of the intensity of their game. And, wow, do these women have game!

Do we still really expect them to ‘act like ladies’ on the court when they can shoot the lights out, take a full-on charge, and set a pick that knocks a defender flat on her back?

For women competing at the elite level, sports remain complicated, even as these athletes get bigger, strong, faster and better. As a society, we still don’t know what to do when our expectations for gender, even with Reese’s long lashes, aren’t met by muscular bodies that can shoot the three from two feet beyond the arc or take a lay-in to the basket when being double teamed by two women who are 6’3”.

Angel Reese reacts towards Caitlin Clark during the fourth quarter of the 2023 NCAA Women’s Basketball Tournament championship game. (Maddie Meyer / Getty Images)

Now, more than 50 years after Title IX started to make all of this possible, we all want to watch. This game was pure entertainment, from the unbelievable shots, to Kim Mulkey’s outfits (because who can write about the Final Four without mentioning those outfits?). Who’s to say a little drama between players doesn’t make us want to watch even more? Both Reese and Clark have eligibility left. Can you imagine if LSU and Iowa play again at some point next year?

We learned across the entire tournament that there are a lot of teams with star power and the potential to contend for a title. Why limit these athletes with our expectations for women? All along, feminists have said, “Let them play.” Let’s let them play and focus on the talent, the games, the competition.

Still, Reese has everyone talking, doesn’t she? Is that really a bad thing for women’s basketball?

Up next:

U.S. democracy is at a dangerous inflection point—from the demise of abortion rights, to a lack of pay equity and parental leave, to skyrocketing maternal mortality, and attacks on trans health. Left unchecked, these crises will lead to wider gaps in political participation and representation. For 50 years, Ms. has been forging feminist journalism—reporting, rebelling and truth-telling from the front-lines, championing the Equal Rights Amendment, and centering the stories of those most impacted. With all that’s at stake for equality, we are redoubling our commitment for the next 50 years. In turn, we need your help, Support Ms. today with a donation—any amount that is meaningful to you. For as little as $5 each month, you’ll receive the print magazine along with our e-newsletters, action alerts, and invitations to Ms. Studios events and podcasts. We are grateful for your loyalty and ferocity.


Susan M. Shaw, Ph.D., is a professor of women, gender and sexuality studies at Oregon State University.