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How a hand gesture dominated a NCAA title game and revealed a double standard

Angel Reese of the LSU Tigers gestures towards Caitlin Clark of the Iowa Hawkeyes towards the end of the NCAA Women's Basketball Tournament championship game in Dallas on Sunday.
Maddie Meyer
Getty Images
Angel Reese of the LSU Tigers gestures towards Caitlin Clark of the Iowa Hawkeyes towards the end of the NCAA Women's Basketball Tournament championship game in Dallas on Sunday.

Louisiana State University beat the University of Iowa in the women's NCAA tournament final on Sunday in a matchup full of historic firsts and dramatic moments.

One of the most-talked about moves happened late in the game and involved two star players, John Cena's wrestling catchphrase and a social media frenzy.

Here's what happened: LSU forward Angel Reese celebrated the Tigers' fourth-quarter lead (and imminent victory) by waving one hand in front of her face — a gesture popularized by the wrestler as "You Can't See Me" — and tapping her ring finger while looking pointedly at Iowa Hawkeyes guard Caitlin Clark.

The moment quickly went viral, with commentators and observers criticizing Reese for what they perceived as unsportsmanlike taunting of Clark. The word "classless" even trended on Twitter.

Reese is Black and Clark is white.

Both players have been standouts at this year's March Madness: Reese, 20, was named Most Outstanding Player on Sunday, while 21-year-old Clark — who had already been named 2023 Player of the Year by several associationsbroke multiple records at the tournament. She finished with 191 points, the most ever scored by any man or woman in a single NCAA tournament.

And both players have used the same gesture at this year's March Madness: Clark waved a hand in front of her face two games earlier when Iowa beat Louisville to enter the Final Four.

But she didn't get criticism for it. In fact, she earned praise, including from Cena himself.

After Reese faced backlash for returning the gesture, many people, including professional athletes, took to Twitter to point out the racist double standard.

And this is far from the only time that's happened, Washington Post sports columnist and ESPN panelist Kevin Blackistone told Morning Edition on Monday.

For example: Jack Johnson, who became the first Black heavyweight boxing champion early in the 20th century, was called cowardly for the same defensive style of boxing that earned white fighters praise for using their guile. Blackistone later tweeted that NFL halfback Joe Lilliard was "a standout in the league in the early 1930s and just as cantankerous as many white players back then, but was castigated for being so."

"We've been conditioned into judging similar, if not the same, behavior by white athletes and Black athletes differently," Blackistone told Morning Edition. "And this was another anecdote to go along with that qualitative evidence."

Where does the gesture come from?

Cena has been doing the "You Can't See Me" move since he brought it to the WWE in the early 2000s, waving an open hand across his face to suggest he's too fast for his opponents to see him coming.

It was also the title of Cena's 2005 debut rap album, which included "The Time is Now," his now-iconic entrance song.

Cena may have popularized the gesture, but he didn't create it from scratch. He publicly credits rapper and G-Unit member Tony Yayo with doing it first, in his 2005 "So Seductive" music video with 50 Cent.

How did it get into Cena's hands? He's brought that story to several talk show stages in recent years.

He told Jimmy Fallon last year that when he was working on his 2005 album, his younger brother Sean was "always our litmus test" and never satisfied with any of the songs. But when Sean heard "The Time is Now," he says, he offered a seal of approval in the form of Tony Yayo's move — bobbing his head in front of his open hand.

Cena remembers saying he'd do it on TV — and his brother daring him.

"So basically, on a dare, by absolute chance, I went out there and I figured this wasn't visible enough," he says, demonstrating the head nod versus the hand wave. "So I wanted to do this, and the term 'you can't see me' is like, 'Well, you're not even on my level.'"

The catchphrase has morphed into an even bigger meme in the years since, with people joking now that they literally cannot see Cena. (He correctly predicted on The Tonight Show Starring Jimmy Fallon that those quips would flood the YouTube video's comment section.)

What have the players said?

Both players have already commented publicly on Sunday night's controversy.

Immediately after the game, Reese told ESPN that she had been eager to whip out the move, saying "Caitlin Clark is a hell of a player for sure, but I don't take disrespect lightly."

Reese accused Clark of disrespecting members of her team as well as South Carolina players at a previous game. Her LSU teammate Alexis Morris had already criticized the Hawkeyes' defense, saying she found the way they guarded South Carolina "disrespectful" and vowing to "take it personally" going into the final.

"I wanted to pick her pocket," Reese added. "But I had a moment at the end of the game ... I was just in my bag, in my moment."

Reese later doubled down in unapologetic tweets and comments at a postgame press conference, where she said she had faced personal attacks all year for not fitting the narrative.

"I don't fit in the box that you all want me to be in. I'm too hood, I'm too ghetto. You told me that all year. But when other people do it, y'all don't say nothing," Reese said. "So this is for the girls that look like me, that want to speak up on what they believe in. It's unapologetically you. It was bigger than me tonight."

She noted that Twitter will always "go in a rage," but she feels happy for all that she's done to help grow women's basketball this year.

Clark said at a postgame briefing that she had "no idea" that Reese was taunting her, adding that she was "just trying to get to the handshake line and shake hands and be grateful that my team was in that position."

"I was just trying to spend the last few moments on the court with especially the five people that I've started 93 games with, and relishing every second of that," Clark added.

Iowa head coach Lisa Bluder said at that same conference that "we're all different people and we all have different ways to show our emotions," adding she could only focus on what she can control.

What are others saying?

Many athletes, commentators and fans are calling out the people who have criticized Reese, questioning why they didn't take issue with the gesture when Clark did it.

"If you didn't say it was classless when Caitlin Clark did it to her opponents then don't say it about Angel Reese either," tweeted former Baylor quarterback and Heisman winner Robert Lee Griffin III.

Retired NBA player Etan Thomas called people out for finding it "cute" when Clark did it, "So don't be all outraged and talking about class and sportsmanship when Angel Reese does the same thing."

Others encouraged people who had that reaction to interrogate the bias behind it.

"If you celebrated Clark for doing this but not Angel Reese you gotta take a long, long look in the mirror," tweeted The Athletic writer Meg Linehan.

And others still urged people to move away from the conversation and, as one women's basketball fan account put it, "let these women trash talk!"

Sports journalist Holly Rowe called on people to stop bashing the players, no matter whose side they took.

"Unapologetically confident young women should be celebrated NOT hated," she added. "Get used to it."

Copyright 2023 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Rachel Treisman (she/her) is a writer and editor for the Morning Edition live blog, which she helped launch in early 2021.