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  • Writer's pictureKenneth Flakes, PE

A Look Back at the 2023 Women's NCAA Final Four

An Essay on Race, Leadership, Mentorship, Sportsmanship, and the Coverage of Women's Sports.

Coach Dawn Staley of the University of South Carolina Gamecocks
Coach Dawn Staley

The 2023 Women's Final Four was a historic event featuring some of the country's best players. The Final Four was a testament to the rising popularity of women's basketball, and it provided a platform for many talented players to showcase their skills. The tournament also sparked important conversations about race and the coverage of women's sports. Below are my thoughts on leadership, race, sportsmanship, and the popularity of women's college basketball after watching the Women's Final Four.

Women's College Basketball is on the Rise

The game is growing in popularity, as evidenced by the record viewership ratings of the NCAA Women's Basketball Tournament. The 2023 tournament was the most-watched in history and the most-viewed college event ever on ESPN Plus. The championship game drew an average of 9.9 million viewers on ABC, and the semifinals also set a record with an average of 4.5 million viewers. Every round of the women's tournament saw double-digit increases in viewership, and the tournament saw a 55% average increase from last year.

Caitlin Clark and Angel Reese are bonafide stars in college basketball, and the return of Paige Bueckers to UCONN next season is sure to further the interest in women’s college basketball.

Dawn Staley Calls Out Media for Unfair Treatment

During a post-game press conference after her team’s loss in the national semifinal, Coach Dawn Staley addressed the media about journalists who are discriminatory in their treatment of her South Carolina Gamecocks team.

“We’re not bar fighters. We’re not thugs. We’re not monkeys. We’re not street fighters. … So watch what you say when you’re in public, and you're talking about my team in particular,” said Staley.

Dawn Staley's comments were both powerful and necessary. Staley stood up for her team and players and called out the media for their unfair and discriminatory treatment. People in positions of power need to speak out against racism and discrimination, and Staley is doing just that.

Staley is an excellent leader and role model for others because she invests in trustworthy relationships and creates a positive culture. She lifts others and gets them to realize their potential. She inspires many, and it’s no surprise that she has been mentioned for NBA head coaching positions.

Caitlin Clark and Angel Reese: A Modern-Day Bird vs. Magic Rivalry?

Before LSU and Iowa met in the women’s championship game, I told a friend that the game represented the modern version of the Larry Bird vs. Magic Johnson rivalry. The two met in the 1979 men’s championship game between Indiana State and Michigan State. The monumental game featured a white star player in Bird for Indiana State and a Black star in Magic who played for Michigan State. The game was played during a time when race relations in America were still very much a work in progress.

Even after the game, Bird and Magic became a part of the greatest rivalry in NBA history, where Bird would play on the East Coast with the Boston Celtics, and Magic would play on the West Coast with the Los Angeles Lakers. This rivalry occurred during the 80s when the NBA continued transitioning from a majority-white league to a majority Black league today.

However, the parallels between the Bird and Magic and Caitlin Clark and Angel Reese are striking. Iowa features a white star player in Caitlin Clark, and the team is majority white, while Louisiana State features a majority Black team led by Angel Reese. Although there is no East Coast or West Coast competition, Iowa is largely representative of the Midwest, while Louisiana State is largely representative of the South. The country's two regions are culturally different, yet both struggle in today’s America. The Midwest has been hit hard by the decline of manufacturing, while the South has some of the highest poverty rates in the country.

This year’s championship game between Iowa and Louisan State, much like the 1979 men’s tournament championship, was also played during a time when there was racial tension in America. The reaction to Angel Reese taunting Caitlin Reese at the end of their victory against Iowa is a clear example of racism, racial insensitivity, and misogyny in America.

For example, Dave Portnoy of Bar Stool Sports called Reese a "classless piece of shit" for her taunt, and Keith Olbermann, formerly of ESPN, said Reese was a “fucking idiot.” While some people criticized Angel Reese for taunting Caitlin Clark, most people had nothing negative to say about Clark when she did the same"You Can't See Me" gesture, popularized by WWE legend John Cena, against the University of Louisville earlier in the tournament. In fact, Clark was even praised for the taunt by Cena and celebrated by ESPN.

Shannon Sharpe of Skip and Shannon: Undisputed explained the differences in responses to Clark and Reese's taunts.

The Reese-Clark hand gesture controversy was a regrettable distraction from the historic nature of the game. While some people interpreted Reese's actions as disrespectful, others viewed the taunt no differently than others who had taunted her. It is important to acknowledge that the reaction to Angel Reese's taunt reflects the larger conversation needed about race and how Black women are viewed in sports and society.

Dr. Jill Biden's Invitation to the Losing Team Sparks Controversy

Although Dr. Jill Biden had good intentions, she failed to realize that inviting the losing team to the White House could be seen as disrespectful to the winning team. Some people, like Sonny Hostin, co-host of The View, believe she may have had a racial blind spot, as the majority-white Iowa Hawkeyes lost to the majority-Black LSU Tigers.

Dr. Biden may have a racial blind spot, but she made a mistake and deserved our grace. I agree with Whoopi Goldberg, who said:

Maybe she doesn’t know, as her husband knows, that only the winning team gets to go. Knowing her as I do, I don’t think it’s that she wanted the White kids to come and not the Black kids. I think it was more, I'm a teacher and I'm trying to make nice with everybody. I just want to point out that sometimes people say stuff or do stuff and people rake them over the coals. But unnecessarily, because they did not take the time out to say well, is this an offense or is this somebody who is ignorant?

While I do not think everyone deserves a trophy, I do not oppose the second-place team visiting the White House. College teams are amateurs, so it’s fine for the runner-up to receive an invite. I consider the White House invitation to be more than just a celebration of the winning team; it’s also a celebration of the sport and the athletes.

Besides, no team sets out to visit the White House at the beginning of the season. Their goal is to be recognized as their sport’s champion. An invitation to the White House is a nice reward, but the true reward is winning the championship.

I appreciate tradition, but I also believe that traditions can evolve. Dr. Biden would have received less criticism if she had announced before the game that she would invite both teams to the White House. If she had explained that she wanted to recognize both teams in the name of sportsmanship and growing the game of women's basketball, I believe more people would have understood her decision. But given the controversy that has occurred, it is unlikely that a second-place team will be invited to the White House in the near future.

Mentorship and Coaching Are Important for Young People

I admire Angel Reese for her on-court skills and her off-the-court authenticity. She is a talented post player who can rebound and defend, and she is also a confident and outspoken young woman. Reese inspires many young girls and women, showing them that it is okay to be different and themselves.

However, the controversy surrounding Angel Reese's "You Can't See Me" taunt is an excellent example of why coaching and mentorship are important. While Reese is a talented young athlete, she is still learning how to navigate the world of social media and public scrutiny. Reese did well in navigating the controversy, but there were a few instances where she could have benefited from better coaching.

First, on the I Am Athlete podcast, Reese stated that the team decided not to allow Dr. Biden to speak with the team before the game because President Joe Biden completed a tournament bracket where LSU would lose in the second round. While it's understandable that athletes use all kinds of perceived slights for motivation, I think this was a bit petty. Dr. Biden did not fill out the bracket, and does anyone really think that President Biden knew anything about the teams he or his delegates selected? President Biden has a country to lead, and I doubt he has much time to watch college basketball, much less LSU.

Next, the day after the tournament victory, Angel Reese quote tweeted “A JOKE” in response to Dr. Jill Biden's initial request for both teams to visit the White House. In my opinion, social media isn’t the way to address conflict. Reese is entitled to believe that Dr. Biden’s request is a joke, but the tweet came across as harsh and disrespectful. I believe that even in disagreement, we must be considerate of the title and position of the person we are speaking to. This is an important lesson that any young person can learn, celebrity or not.

Lastly, after Dr. Biden's press secretary clarified that only LSU would be invited to the White House, Reese continued to be outspoken about her desire not to attend. "I'm not going to lie to you, 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 on I Am Athlete.

“I mean, you felt like they should’ve came because of sportsmanship, right?” Reese added. “They can have that spotlight. We'll go to the Obamas. We’ll see Michelle. We’ll see Barack.”

To be clear, Dr. Jill Biden never apologized to Reese, nor to my knowledge have the Obamas extended an invitation to meet the team. Instead, Dr. Biden's press secretary clarified her original statement. But even if Reese took that clarification as an apology, she had become so attached to her position that she was unwilling to accept Dr. Biden’s invitation to the White House.

Though Reese had every right to be upset about Iowa's invitation to the White House, she could have used the visit to speak with Dr. Biden and explain her position. As the First Lady of the United States, Dr. Biden has a platform much greater than Reese's. Reese could have potentially used Dr. Biden's platform to advance her social justice goals if she had agreed to visit the White House. However, Reese would have missed out on those opportunities if she had declined the invitation.

Fortunately, Reese and her team ultimately agreed to accept the White House invitation after a personal call from President Joe Biden. I hope Reese and Dr. Biden use the White House visit to resolve their public conflict and advance women’s sports and social justice issues.

Final Thoughts

In conclusion, the 2023 NCAA Women's Basketball Championship was a historic event showcasing the sport's best. Caitlin Clark and Angel Reese are two of the most talented players in the country, and their rivalry will be a featured storyline in women's college basketball next season. The taunting controversy and Dr. Biden's gaffe overshadowed the LSU championship, but these events may help lead to even greater interest in women's basketball.

Despite losing in the national semi-final, Dawn Staley is a shining example of what it means to be an excellent coach and role model. Her leadership has been instrumental in the sustained success of the South Carolina Gamecocks.

Overall, the 2023 NCAA Women's Final Four was a great event that helped to popularize the sport further. The future of women's basketball is bright, and I am excited to see what the next generation of stars brings to the court.

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Photo by Chris Gillespie


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