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While people try to gatekeep sportsmanship, Black athletes are unapologetically themselves

The reaction to LSU star Angel Reese’s playful trash talk uncovers an ugly underbelly of racist attitudes on what athletes can express themselves.

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In some circles, they call Boston Celtics great Larry Bird “the greatest trash talker” ever. I remember one particular story where in a 1986 game against the Portland Trail Blazers said he would play most of the game left-handed because “he was saving his right hand for the Lakers. (Bird would score 20 of his 47 points left-handed). If you’ve been in a competitive sport, trash talk is essential to how athletes communicate. It's just a jousting of gamesmanship.

If a player gets hot on the basketball court and goes on a scoring run, they might yell, “they can’t guard me,” to the defender. When a receiver “mosses” a cornerback, they might make the “too small” hand motion. We love athletes for their insane drive to win and willingness to get in your ear to let you know how great they were.

However, when it comes to those of color, there’s a double standard in how exactly they should show these emotions. Anything too bold will then be showered with many unwarranted and ugly stereotypes.

I enjoyed watching the NCAA Women’s Basketball tournament this year – as with every year. The WNBA is about to be in good hands for years. But as soon as LSU star Angel Reese did the “John Cena, you can’t see me” taunt Iowa star Caitlin Clarke did earlier in the tournament, I knew trouble was coming. It’s simply because there’s a staunch double standard in how Black athletes get to express themselves.

Anybody who has played a pick-up game on a neighborhood basketball court understands that trash talk is a right of passage. I’m sure even Clark would agree. When you lose, sometimes you have to grin and bear it. “Ok, you got me. I’ll be back next time, though.” Anytime retired quarterback legend Tom Brady broke a Microsoft Surface or got in the face of his teammates, he was lauded for his “competitive fire.” However, the sky has fallen when the Most Outstanding Player winner points to her finger to size up the ring she’s about to get.

The best way to stop trash talk is to beat the team talking – something that Iowa didn’t do. Even in the face of unabashed criticism from many who haven’t played the game of that level, Black athletes still excel in a sports world that seeks to tone them down. Look at Major League Baseball – flourishing with a diverse array of talent for the first time in decades. However, they still can’t express themselves fully because of the constraints of the “unwritten rules.” “Playing the Right Way” is just a big code words for “don’t make me feel uncomfortable.”

Fans like bombast – but only from a specific type of athlete. Otherwise, it uncovers the myriad of racist and sexist thoughts dragged up by their own insecurities. When Venus Williams was 14, her father Richard defended her sense of confidence to a reporter looking to instill doubt like a seed to soil. Hall of famer and South Carolina Gamecocks coach Dawn Staley spoke about the same world recently that will try to label these athletes harshly. But the true victory is to be yourself when the world tries to ring every ounce of special out of you

“I’m too hood. I’m too ghetto. Y’all told me that all year. When other people do it, and y’all don’t say nothing,” said Reese after the game. If you want to call her anything, call her champion.