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Angel Reese, Caitlin Clark and the trash talk drawing attention to women’s basketball

‘What we’re doing and what other teams are doing is just empowering women’

LSU forward Angel Reese’s emphatic “too small” gestures after scoring a tough basket in the paint draw the ire of opposing fans but cheers from fans wearing LSU’s purple and gold.

Iowa guard Caitlin Clark’s “you can’t see me,” a hand wave popularized in modern culture by WWE superstar John Cena, turns Hawkeye fans into a frenzy.

Gestures of dominance – players shushing the crowds, trash talking – aren’t new to women’s basketball. According to coaches and players, over the last few years the growth of women’s basketball and the increased media attention given to the sport have put trash talking and high emotion on display.

“I think the biggest change is there’s social media, the internet, Twitter, Instagram, so everything is at the forefront,” Arizona coach Adia Barnes said. “Before [social media], it would happen, it wouldn’t be visible to the public. It’s everywhere and everybody sees it [now], so there’s nothing to hide. I think that’s one of the biggest differences.

“I think now women are stronger, they’re more comfortable in their own skin, they’re more independent and I think people actually care. I think that a couple of years ago, people didn’t care.”

Barnes watched the national championship but couldn’t take her eyes off Reese and Clark. Barnes, who led the Wildcats to the national championship game in 2021, remembers when she enjoyed watching NFL players spiking the ball after touchdowns and doing celebratory dances. Football players showing their emotions was one of Barnes’ favorite things to watch. Watching women’s basketball evolve and players’ personalities and passion on display for the world to see is refreshing to her.

“I think [we’re] supposed to have passion and I loved when Caitlin Clark ran around the court, you know, yelling and pumping the crowd up. I think that’s awesome. And I love that Angel had fire,” Barnes said. “But who knows what happened before? I think there’s a lot of things that go on in the game that people don’t know. But I love the fact that the women weren’t afraid to show their emotions and I’m fine with that.

“I think that you can’t taunt and be disrespectful, that’s grounds for a technical, but I think you’re supposed to have fun [and] celebrate.”

Baylor center Kalani Brown (right) celebrates the team’s win over Notre Dame in the NCAA women’s basketball national championship at Amalie Arena on April 7, 2019, in Tampa, Florida.

Justin Tafoya/NCAA Photos via Getty Images

“A lot of kids are broken. Their confidence is broken because they never feel like they can play their game and be who they are. I think that’s part of why LSU is so successful as well.” — Kalani Brown

WNBA player and 2012 NCAA national champion Odyssey Sims thought the trash talk spectacle between two of the nation’s top teams and players was entertaining to watch.

“Sports [are] fun and you should be able to be yourself [and] trash talk. Whatever keeps you motivated, whatever keeps you going, you should be able to do it,” Sims said. “I don’t think that you should be labeled like, ‘that’s not ladylike for a woman to do,’ because men can do it. Why can’t we?

“So for [players] to be themselves, I think that’s the biggest thing for them to show that they can be themselves regardless of what’s being said on the court. It’s fun to watch.”

Kalani Brown, who also won a national championship with coach Kim Mulkey at Baylor in 2018, was at American Airlines Center to witness the women’s national championship. Brown remembers when she was deterred from expressing her emotions because of the possibility of being assessed with technical fouls when she was a collegiate player, but now embraces the new age of college players being more expressive.

“We couldn’t do it. We’d get technical fouls when we showed emotions,” Brown said. “Women are just emotional. Everybody trash talks in the game now. I feel like why can’t [Angel Reese] talk her stuff? She’s right, in a sense.

“It’s just kind of the stigma that we’ve always had. These kids that are coming up are breaking it … that’s how they are able to play so well and play together. A lot of kids are broken. Their confidence is broken because they never feel like they can play their game and be who they are. I think that’s part of why LSU is so successful as well.”

For LSU guard Kateri Poole, the trash talk is mild compared to what she and her teammates say during practice. Poole knows her opponents off the court aren’t as tough as they seem, and she knows her teammates have her back.

She hopes showing emotions will become commonplace in the women’s game, and will be received in a more positive light.

“If we can’t express how the guys do, how do you expect us to react?” Poole said. “We’re gonna talk trash. It’s just the reality of the game and it makes the game more exciting. People feel like if we don’t talk and we don’t react to certain things we don’t have feelings. We have feelings, too. What we’re doing and what other teams are doing is just empowering women.”

Ole Miss head coach Yolett McPhee-McCuin brought up memories of when she played collegiate basketball in the early 2000s and how her teammates talked more trash at practices than their opponents did. The trash talk was their competitive nature taking over and not meant to be personal.

“We’re talking about competitiveness so for women not to be able to express that, that’s sad,” McPhee-McCuin said. “Now, there’s a time and place and all that, you know, but come on, let these kids be competitors.

“In the heat of the moment you don’t know what’s gonna happen. That’s why Caitlin Clark says she wasn’t even tripping, though. No real hooper or real competitor trips when someone trash talks, especially when they know they trash talking too.”

LSU’s Flau’jae Johnson (left) and Kateri Poole (right) react during the fourth quarter against Iowa during the NCAA women’s basketball championship game at American Airlines Center on April 2 in Dallas.

Maddie Meyer/Getty Images

The antics and passion that former players and coaches admire in the women’s game were quickly used to vilify Reese, who was named tournament Most Outstanding Player. Although Reese was the one of several players publicly trash talking, she was scrutinized the hardest while Clark and Louisville guard Haley Van Lith were praised for it days earlier.

“My team got my back for sure, and I’ve got theirs, so I just think it’s just fun. We have a lot of fun with each other, and we go at it all the time. We do that to each other in practice, so it’s just fun,” Reese said after the championship. “Twitter is going to go on a rage every time, and I’m happy. I feel like I’ve helped grow women’s basketball this year..”

Reese’s freshman teammate Flau’jae Johnson has also noticed the difference between how Reese and others were portrayed.

“I’m gonna say: It’s like [Reese]’s young and Black and she expresses and that’s gonna be seen as ghetto. When another type of player does it or another player with a different type of skin color does it, it’s just having love for the sport,” Johnson said.

“When we do it’s like, ‘Oh, she’s too aggressive. She is too mean and nasty.’ I’m seeing the double standard for sure in that, but you got to do just what comes with it. That’s just the society we live in, but you never stop being you.”

First lady Jill Biden said both LSU and Iowa should be invited to the White House to celebrate their play and sportsmanship in the national championship, a privilege usually extended to only the national champion. Reese responded to the suggestion commenting it’s “a joke.”

On the Paper Talk podcast, Reese told hosts Brandon Marshall and Ashley Nicole Moss she didn’t believe LSU would’ve been invited had the roles been reversed. Biden’s press secretary walked back the first lady’s suggestion, but Reese didn’t accept the apology.

“If we were to lose, we would not be getting invited to the White House,” Reese said. “I remember she made a comment about both teams should be invited because of sportsmanship. And I’m like, ‘Are you saying that because of what I did?’ Stuff like that, it bothers me because you are a woman at the end of the day. White, Black, it doesn’t matter, you’re a woman, you’re supposed to be standing behind us before anything.”

Despite Reese playing at a SEC rival school, the criticism of the LSU post player on social media became personal for McPhee-McCuin.

“Angel doesn’t play for me; she plays for LSU, [but] that doesn’t mean I don’t look at her as that could have been my kid. I just stand on certain morals and I just thought that that thing really bothered me when I saw them call her [out] like that. That really got to me,” McPhee-McCuin said.

“I had absolutely no problem with people saying that they didn’t like what [Reese] did. What I had a problem with was when they started calling her classless and stupid and an idiot. Like, come on, man. That’s what’s wrong. Why we can’t just disagree with some respect? You don’t always have to go to calling people names and stuff like that.”

Barnes isn’t a stranger to the scrutiny that comes with showing emotions after she was criticized for a passionate speech to her players after they defeated UConn in the 2021 Final Four. Barnes understands the unfortunate realities of how people receive trash talk in the sport.

“Women are role models, and I think it’s perfectly fine. And it’s awesome that women that are passionate and they’re still competitive,” Barnes said. “They get angry, they get happy, they celebrate. I think that’s a great, huge part of our game. Some people compete in different ways. I think there’s just double standards sometimes, and certain people are allowed to do certain things. That’s unfortunate in our sport.”

Despite the negative conversations circulated on social media about Reese, women’s basketball celebrated a win. Viewership for the women’s national championship between LSU and Iowa drew 9.9 million viewers, the most viewed women’s college basketball game on record.

“I do think a lot of people learn from that situation, though. A lot of people learn that people are not going to allow them to pop off and talk crazy and be disrespectful,” McPhee-McCuin said. “Everything that transpired as ugly, there was a lot of good that came out of it. We got 9 million people watching our game.”

Mia Berry is the senior HBCU writer for Andscape and covers everything from sports to student-led protests. She is a Detroit native (What up Doe!), long-suffering Detroit sports fan and Notre Dame alumna who randomly shouts, "Go Irish."