Categories: Media & Culture

Beyond the game: Lessons from the cultural parallels between women’s college basketball and American politics

Were you one of the 18.7 mil­lion view­ers of the Women’s Divi­sion I Cham­pi­onship game? If not, you missed out on an incred­i­ble spec­ta­cle of ath­leti­cism and a dra­mat­ic sto­ry of tri­umph and disappointment.

For those of you who didn’t watch, because you do not believe women have sig­nif­i­cant ath­let­ic tal­ent and aren’t worth watch­ing, I sug­gest you scroll on by this arti­cle. You and I like­ly will not agree on much of any­thing here. If you didn’t watch because you just don’t have any inter­est in sports, I invite you to stick around, because the con­ver­sa­tion I invite you to is only part­ly about sports. 

As I have watched media cov­er the sto­ry of women’s bas­ket­ball this year and wit­nessed for the first time in my life­time thor­ough cov­er­age of the tour­na­ment, as well as all-female casts of com­men­ta­tors and ana­lysts, I have seen many par­al­lels between how we are talk­ing about and con­sum­ing media about play­ers and teams in the NCAA and how we are talk­ing about and con­sum­ing media about polit­i­cal fig­ures and polit­i­cal parties.

My hus­band and I attend­ed the Final Four tour­na­ment last year. I was invit­ed to deliv­er a keynote speech at the Women’s Bas­ket­ball Coach­es Asso­ci­a­tion Con­fer­ence, which takes place on the back­side of the Final Four tour­na­ment each year. I deliv­ered my speech the morn­ing before the day of the Final Four games. I planned to speak and then attend ses­sions with coach­es to learn and grow as an athlete. 

Because I was a speak­er, my hus­band and I got spe­cial tick­ets to see the Final Four and Cham­pi­onship games. We had the oppor­tu­ni­ty to sit in the stands amidst oth­er Divi­sion I women’s coach­es, all of whom had coached against at least one of the teams play­ing in the Final Four. We also had the oppor­tu­ni­ty to wit­ness LSU with their star, Angel Reese, take on Iowa and its star, shoot­ing phe­nom, Caitlin Clark, in the cham­pi­onship game.

The sta­di­um was filled to the brim for the final game. There were more atten­dees at the final game in 2023 than ever in the his­to­ry of women’s bas­ket­ball. The build­ing roared with excite­ment. Hav­ing played col­lege bas­ket­ball in the 1980s, when hard­ly any­one showed up to our games, it felt incred­i­ble to bear wit­ness to this kind of inter­est in women’s bas­ket­ball. Although both teams played well (I had no horse in the race; I just want­ed great bas­ket­ball), LSU won the title. In the last min­utes of the game, when Angel Reese real­ized her team was going to win, she began taunt­ing Clark with the “You can’t see mee” taunt Clark had been using ear­li­er. Angel end­ed the game point­ing to her ring fin­ger as she walked past Caitlin towards her team’s bench.

Sud­den­ly, in the media, instead of a focus on her team’s vic­to­ry, Angel was paint­ed as class­less and a vil­lain. How dare a young woman taunt anoth­er play­er in that way? What I (and all the coach­es around me) knew was that Clark had been trash-talk­ing the entire game (and com­plain­ing to refs about calls that didn’t go her way). 

How was she now seen as the victim?

The mass media latched on to this sto­ry, and sud­den­ly there was a flur­ry of posts describ­ing Angel Reese as the vil­lain and Caitlin Clark as the hero.

All eyes were on Clark as she began her senior sea­son in Novem­ber. She became the NCAA’s all-time lead­ing scor­er for men and women. She had the most 30-point games of any man or women and made the most 3‑pointers in a sin­gle sea­son. By many met­rics, she is one of the most icon­ic play­ers of our time. Sud­den­ly, peo­ple were pay­ing atten­tion to Clark and to women’s bas­ket­ball in a way they had not before.

The algo­rithms for Tik­Tok and Insta­gram flood­ed my feeds start­ing at the begin­ning of March Mad­ness with posts about whether or not Caitlin Clark was the Great­est of All Time. The only thing she need­ed now was a cham­pi­onship title next to her name. The entire nation seemed to be root­ing for her suc­cess. As we approached the Sweet Six­teen, reporters and sports com­men­ta­tors con­tin­ued to bring up the rival­ry of 2023 — Angel Reese vs Caitlin Clark (as if there weren’t 4 oth­er play­ers on each team). Angel Reese con­tin­ued to be paint­ed as “hood” and a vil­lain. Caitlin Clark, undoubt­ed­ly an incred­i­ble play­er, was often spo­ken of as a god-like fig­ure who could do no wrong.

The more I watched games and lis­tened to com­men­ta­tors, the more I began to see par­al­lels between bas­ket­ball and our cur­rent polit­i­cal cli­mate. Cer­tain seg­ments of Amer­i­can view­er­ship talked about Caitlin Clark in ways very sim­i­lar to how oth­er groups (with some over­lap?) talked about for­mer Pres­i­dent, Don­ald Trump. There was almost a wor­ship­ful stance towards each of these fig­ures when­ev­er they were brought up in their respec­tive spaces. Groups of lit­tle blond girls had black and yel­low t‑shirts made with Clark’s name print­ed on the front or back, much like the red Make Amer­i­ca Great, Again base­ball caps donned by men and women of all ages at Trump rallies.

What was the con­nec­tion? What is the dri­ve at the moment for mil­lions of peo­ple to watch a young woman they have nev­er met play­ing a sport for which they had no inter­est even just one year ago? What draws fans to out­door events with Can­di­date Trump wear­ing their red hats and Amer­i­can flags?

The oth­er day, as I was on a run, just days since the play­ing of the women’s cham­pi­onship, where Caitlin and her Iowa team lost for a sec­ond year in a row, this time to South Car­oli­na, I lis­tened to a favorite pod­cast of mine —  Holy Post. The episode began with a dis­cus­sion about sev­er­al research projects that have come out with find­ings that few­er and few­er peo­ple are attend­ing reli­gious ser­vices now than at any oth­er point in Amer­i­can his­to­ry.  The hosts dis­cussed some of the rea­sons why peo­ple are leav­ing church­es and the effect it is hav­ing on how Amer­i­cans build (or do not) com­mu­ni­ty dif­fer­ent­ly now. On the pod­cast, they used exam­ples of the ways Trump ral­lies almost mim­ic a typ­i­cal church ser­vice and often end with singing in a style sim­i­lar to a wor­ship service.

Bells went off in my head.

With all the con­flict at hand — from the con­tentious dynam­ics between Repub­li­can and Demo­c­rat — to the very real impli­ca­tions of sky-rock­et­ing hous­ing prices and an econ­o­my that feels ten­u­ous and unsure, after sev­er­al years of dis­con­nec­tion in response to COVID-19, peo­ple are feel­ing a sense of hope­less­ness. What used to draw peo­ple togeth­er — church­es and schools and social clubs — is no longer meet­ing the same need. Peo­ple are look­ing for some­one or some­thing to give them hope. They are look­ing for heroes, even if those heroes real­ly can’t or won’t do any­thing to meet their actu­al needs.

Our need for heroes cre­ates a par­al­lel “need” for vil­lains. Caitlin Clark became the hero for many who hoped beyond hope this young woman from mid­dle Amer­i­ca (coin­ci­den­tal­ly one of the whitest states in the nation) would “over­come.” I believe some actu­al­ly thought a win for Caitlin would some­how car­ry them through this dif­fi­cult time. 

Angel Reese and any oth­er play­er or team that got in the way of Caitlin’s vic­to­ry sud­den­ly became the vil­lain. Iron­i­cal­ly, the team that was able to defeat Iowa in the Finals, the South Car­oli­na Game­cocks, despite being the only team in women’s bas­ket­ball with zero loss­es this sea­son, and coached by arguably on of the great­est coach­es of all time, Dawn Sta­ley, is now being accused by Iowa fans of being men play­ing as women. For those who have made Don­ald Trump their hero, Biden and any­one who claims “Demo­c­rat” must be the villain.

Lessons to be learned from all of this:

  1. There is no sin­gu­lar hero com­ing to save us. As many have been say­ing in the last week since the women’s final, the rea­son Dawn Sta­ley and the Game­cocks were able to defeat Iowa was because they played as a team. There was no sin­gu­lar star, and even the bench play­ers con­tributed much to the score (27 bench points from South Car­oli­na; 0 bench points from Iowa). Find oth­ers in your com­mu­ni­ty with whom you can part­ner to work towards a bet­ter tomor­row. You can’t do the work on your own; nor can any­one else.
  2. Just because you do not com­plete­ly agree with some­one does not make them the ene­my. If you are a Demo­c­rat, don’t assume your Repub­li­can neigh­bor is a hor­ri­ble per­son. Go meet them. Make a com­mit­ment to get to know them as a per­son. Find some­thing about which you can con­nect. The same is true for those who iden­ti­fy as Repub­li­cans. Don’t just believe the sound bites and write all Democ­rats off as idiots.
  3. There is enough great­ness to go around. Caitlin Clark is awe­some, as is Angel Reese and Kamil­la Car­doso and JuJu Watkins (USC) and Paige Bueck­ers (UConn) and so many oth­ers. No sin­gle fig­ure is per­fect. No sin­gle fig­ure is wor­thy of our wor­ship. Each and every one of us has some­thing to con­tribute to com­mu­ni­ty. You do not have to be “the best” to offer your best.
  4. This sea­son in our coun­try is dif­fi­cult. Social net­works can be a gift, but also a curse. Social net­works curate com­mu­ni­ties that become echo cham­bers, that cause us to hear only one side of a sto­ry or to buy into nar­ra­tives about whole groups of peo­ple that are incor­rect or incom­plete. Face­less and name­less fig­ures can use their anonymi­ty to spread hate and dis­cord in ways that were much more dif­fi­cult before we all had a phone in our hands.

What to do? 

Put your phones down. Walk out in nature. Dance. Play board games with fam­i­ly and friends. Learn how to be togeth­er, again.

Com­mit to meet­ing neigh­bors for cof­fee… or tea… or a beer.

Choose kind­ness as you inter­act with peo­ple in stores and on trains and at work.

Final­ly, learn about the issues and the can­di­dates and turn out to vote, espe­cial­ly in local elec­tions. Local elec­tions mat­ter so much. You may not yet know who all to vote for in this year’s elec­tions. Don’t wor­ry about that now. Take time to get to know the can­di­dates in your back­yard — like those run­ning for coun­ty com­mis­sion­er or pub­lic util­i­ty dis­trict com­mis­sion­er. They will be mak­ing deci­sions that affect how you get to live every day.

Remem­ber, your voice mat­ters. Use it for good.

Erin Jones

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