LSU’s Reese, Iowa’s Clark give us much to consider

The spotlight on women’s basketball is far bigger than ever before. That’s good.

But in that One Shining Moment Sunday afternoon, when ABC and ESPN2 combined for 9.9 million viewers, LSU’s awesome 102-85 national championship victory over Iowa has become almost secondary to the sharp debate on social issues raised by taunting from the superstar players, LSU’s Angel Reese and Iowa’s Caitlin Clark.

That’s bad. And it’s good. Not ideal, but necessary.

As for the 9.9 million, college football writer Stewart Mandel of The Athletic provided context that we can understand. He wrote,

“That’s more than last season’s:

  • Sugar, Orange and Cotton Bowls
  • Big 12, Pac-12 and ACC title games
  • Notre Dame-USC
  • LSU-Alabama
  • Ohio State-Penn State
  • Bama-Texas A&M primetime on CBS”

If you want to venture outside college football ratings, there’s this:

“Sunday’s audience exceeded every game of last year’s NBA Playoffs except for the NBA Finals, every game of last year’s Major League Baseball Postseason except for the World Series, every NASCAR race since 2017 (including the Daytona 500), and every NHL game in more than 50 years (including the Stanley Cup Final),” reported Sports Media Watch, which noted it nearly matched the 10.2 million who watched January’s Rose Bowl.

Take that and blend in social media and the 24-hour news cycle, and the inconvenient truth is that the biggest story in the history of women’s college basketball is not anything that happened while the ball was in play.

Why? A lot of it comes back to gender and race, or traditional vs. contemporary culture. Discussing those topics isn’t easy.

Trash talk in sports has been around forever, whether or not it was noticed. Now there are cameras and microphones around not only pro and college sports, but high school and youth competition. If it doesn’t rear up on mainstream media, it’s there on social accounts.

It hasn’t flared up to very noticeable levels in women’s sports although it’s forever been typical fare for male competitors. Many basketball fans know Larry Bird, Magic Johnson and Michael Jordan were not only among the game’s all-time greats but they were equally good at talking trash.

Women have always done the same, but with those games getting a fraction of media attention, it wasn’t apparent to anyone other than the closest observers. That has changed, and if you hadn’t noticed, you probably have in the last day or two.

It’s absurd to celebrate Bird, Magic and MJ’s “competitive” behavior while criticizing today’s female stars for doing much the same thing.

Sadly, since Reese is black and Clark is white, there are racial overtones for too many observers. Charles Barkley noted that harsh reality on CBS before the men’s national championship game last night, while he and colleagues bemoaned how Reese taunting Clark overshadowed a tremendous showcase for the women’s game, a watershed moment in the sport’s lifespan, while overshadowing an incredible performance by the Tigers.

The mere fact that the LSU-Iowa game got a block of coverage in Monday’s CBS pregame show reflected the surging interest in the women’s game — and its sudden controversy.

“I don’t fit in the box that you all want me to be in. I’m too hood, I’m too ghetto. You told me that all year. But when other people do it, y’all don’t say nothing,” Reese said Sunday night in the postgame press conference. “So this is for the girls that look like me, that want to speak up on what they believe in. It’s unapologetically you. It was bigger than me tonight.”

Point taken, and well made.

“If you celebrated Clark for doing this but not Angel Reese you gotta take a long, long look in the mirror,” tweeted The Athletic writer Meg Linehan.

Yet, while Reese stood firmly behind her taunts, nobody asked Clark about hers against South Carolina, Louisville and other teams. They did ask for her reaction to what Reese did. Clark said she didn’t notice. By now, she has. 

Lots of the more old-school people decried all of the taunting by Reese, especially when she pointedly sought out Clark in the final seconds and immediate aftermath of the game. Some said her in-game activity was tolerable, but pressing it seconds past 40 minutes was “classless.” I’d say overzealous, and over-emotional. Did not like it one bit. But I think I understand it, and I’m willing to give her a pass.

Clark is, too. There was mutual respect expressed in postgame comments by the 20-year-old Tiger and the 21-year-old Hawkeye. Then Tuesday, Clark directly addressed the incidents, and left no room for doubt.

“I don’t think Angel should be criticized at all. No matter what way it goes, she should never be criticized for what she did. I compete, she competed,” said Clark. “It was a super, super fun game. I think that’s what’s going to bring some more people to our game.”

Starting with the spotlight firmly focused on Clark and Reese, one unassuming off the court, the other incandescent everywhere.

Both stars will be back next season. We will probably enjoy the closest thing college hoops has seen since Bird was at Indiana State and Magic at Michigan State. Big difference? Infinitely more exposure and — there’s NIL now.

Clark gets it. On her Twitter profile, the last line reads, “Business Inquiries:” – an e-mail address that has recently expanded from a two-lane Iowa country road to an expressway.

Clark’s NIL valuation has more than tripled, from under $200,000 to $740,000, in the last few days. There’s no denying that her spectacular season and sensational NCAA performances have made her the game’s focal figure, and is drawing fans to the game like nobody else has.

Reese earned the “Bayou Barbie” nickname this year, her first at LSU after transferring from Maryland. Her sense of style extends to the court, blending there with her often-dominating brand of basketball.

They have forced us to contemplate some tough issues, producing some uncomfortable discussion. No question, their NIL values are soaring, and they’ll be better off for it.

Hopefully we will, too.

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