Women’s basketball feud shows grace in sports is disappearing

by | Apr 9, 2023 | Comment, Detroit Free Press | 0 comments

Caitlin Clark did it first. Let’s be clear about that. The Iowa women’s basketball star, after hitting yet another 3-point basket in an NCAA tournament game against Louisville, ran her hand in front of her face in a gesture that wrestling fans, athletes and young people are all familiar with.

It’s called the “You Can’t See Me.” It’s meant to imply that a person is so good, so fast, so above the opponent, that the opponent can’t even see them.

Is it silly? Yes. Juvenile? Sure. Bad sportsmanship? For sure. At least to older people who remember the days when, if the game was decided, the only thing you did with your hands to an opponent was shake them.

But after Caitlin Clark did it, a young woman named Angel Reese did it one better. Reese’s team, the LSU Tigers, defeated Clark’s team a week later in the NCAA women’s championship final. Near the end of the game, Reese made sure to find Clark, yelled at her, did the “You Can’t See Me” gesture, then pointed to her ring finger, suggesting she’s getting a championship ring and Clark isn’t. All this as Clark tried to ignore her.

Now this kind of stuff has gone on in the men’s game for decades. Basketball, especially, has long been rife with trash talk. And whether it’s good for the sport or not, lamenting it, at this point, is futile. It’s as normal as squeaking sneakers.

But many people thought the women’s game was more gracious. More supportive. More … polite? Apparently, they haven’t been watching enough of it.

But … it’s the White House

The debate over the hand gestures, sadly, took away from an entertaining and highly-anticipated title matchup, the most watched women’s championship game in history.

And of course, because everything in this country seems to devolve into racial arguments, it became all about why people didn’t criticize Clark, who is white, as much as they did Reese, who is Black — and there is truth to that — even though plenty of people thought the gesture was unseemly no matter who did it.

Reese complained to the media that people saw her as “too hood” and “too ghetto” and said she did the gesture “for the girls that look like me, that want to speak up on what they believe in.”

Reese’s comment became such a firestorm, you almost forgot anyone else was on the team.

But then it got worse.

First lady Jill Biden, who had attended the championship game, tried to be complimentary to both teams the next day with this suggestion:

“I know we’ll have the champions come to the White House. We always do. So, we hope LSU will come but, you know, I’m going to tell Joe, I think Iowa should come, too, because they played such a good game.”

Well. You would have thought she threw poison in Reese’s Gatorade.

“A JOKE” she posted. And later, “WE NOT COMING.”

Now, the first lady may not be all that up on sports. And her suggestion that both teams come to the White House would certainly break with tradition, where only winners are normally invited.  

But ask yourself what exactly was so awful about her idea? Was it based on cruelty? Was it mean? At Wimbledon, both the winner and runner-up are given trophies and asked to speak at Centre Court. It’s not impossible to imagine.

In any case, Jill Biden is still the first lady. Even if she was misguided, if you believe her position commands some respect, then tweeting “A JOKE” and “WE NOT COMING” doesn’t show it.

But such is the state of America today, that it was Jill Biden, not Reese, who apologized.

And then Reese, stunningly, did not accept it.

“I don’t accept the apology because … you said what you said. I said what I said. And like, you can’t go back on certain things that you say,” Reese said in a podcast.

“… They (Iowa) can have that spotlight. We’ll go to the Obamas. We’ll see Michelle. We’ll see Barack.”

What happens when you don’t win with grace

Now, I will show my age here by saying this. I understand that Reese felt hurt. But when someone apologizes, the gracious thing is to accept it.

And when the first lady of the United States apologizes to you, it’s fairly ungracious to say never mind, we don’t need you, we’ll go to a former president and his wife, suggesting, because the Obamas are Black, they would welcome a player like Reese and her teammates in a way the white Bidens somehow won’t.

Does anyone really think that Jill Biden said what she did because the majority of Iowa players are white? Or that she wouldn’t have said the same thing if LSU had lost? If you do, OK. But that sure doesn’t line up with the president and first lady’s actions to date.

In the end, what this comes down to is maturity. In fairness, Reese is just 20 years old, and Clark is 21.

But when we’re teaching our kids that wrestling taunts are what come with winning, and we cheer when college students tell the White House to shove it, how can we expect more mature behavior?

In the end, Reese relented, saying she would do what her team wanted to do. And LSU does plan to visit the White House at some point. But when they get there, it’s a shame that they’ll be dragging the invisible baggage of this past week.

It would be nice to imagine a world where winning meant only kind words for the losers, and the suggestion of sharing an honor wasn’t seen as stupid. 

But that world? You Can’t See It anymore. That’s worse than a gesture. That’s a sad truth.

Contact Mitch Albom: malbom@freepress.com. Check out the latest updates with his charities, books and events at MitchAlbom.com. Follow him on Twitter @mitchalbom.


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Mitch Albom writes about running an orphanage in impoverished Port-au-Prince, Haiti, his kids, their hardships, laughs and challenges, and the life lessons he’s learned there every day.

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