Angel Reese is a top pick for the WNBA draft. Why has she received so much hate?

Angel Reese Andy Lyons/Getty Images
Angel Reese Andy Lyons/Getty Images

Women's basketball has never been more popular, which is great for the sport, but comes with the seemingly inevitable downside of its players receiving more scrutiny as fans grow increasingly invested. Such has been the case for Angel Reese, Louisiana State University's power forward who — along with University of Iowa point guard Caitlin Clark — is predicted to be top picks in Monday night's WNBA draft.

The 21-year-old star player is at the center of a maelstrom of hate and internet trolling that began last year. When Reese led her team to a national championship against Clark, an interaction that some characterized as "trash-talking" went viral, prompting attacks from basketball fans, commentators and even sports journalists.

During a post-game press conference last week following LSU's loss to Iowa in a highly-anticipated rematch, Reese showed vulnerability and cried, opening up about the exchange with Clark and telling reporters that she's "been through so much."

"I’ve seen so much," she continued. I’ve been attacked so many times, death threats. I’ve been sexualized. I’ve been threatened ... I’ve been so many things, and I’ve stood strong every single time.”

So why was the leader of 2023's national championship team, an All-American player and this year's Southern Conference Player of the Year, a target of unyielding hate, sexualization and racism? Here's the breakdown.

Last year's championship game

2023's NCAA women’s basketball final game ended with LSU snagging the win with a score of 102 points to Iowa's 85. During the game, Reese taunted Clark by waving her hands in front of her own face, a nod to the "you can't see me" gesture created by rapper Tony Yayo and then popularized by WWE star John Cena.

Both Clark and Reese used the gesture during last year's March Madness. Clark waved a hand in front of her face when Iowa beat Louisville, allowing them to enter the Final Four. Clark, who is white, was not criticized by fans and commentators, though. She actually received a nod from Cena himself on social media. Cena congratulated Clark for a historic win and said, "Even if they could see you…they couldn’t guard you!"

However, the same sentiment was not shared when Reese, who is Black, made the gesture. Reese also pointed to her ring finger in front of Clark to insinuate that she and LSU would be taking home the championship, which they did. This gesture is one male basketball stars, including Golden State Warriors guard Stephen Curry, have done in championship games.

The fallout

The response to Reese's gesture was uncontrollable and devolved into insidious racism.She was called an "a "f—king idiot" by former MSNBC journalist Keith Olbermann, while CBS Sports anchor Danny Kanell called the move "classless."

The Los Angeles Times ran a story in which columnist Ben Bolch referred to LSU players as “dirty debutantes” and “villains.” The racist language was later edited from the article and the LA Times said that the story "did not meet its standards," NPR reported.

Even First Lady Jill Biden showed some favoritism to Iowa after LSU's win. In a statement, Biden said, "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."

As the online hate continued to spiral, AI-generated, deepfake pornography featuring the player began to appear online. Reese took to X to address the photos saying, "Creating fake AI pictures of me is crazy and weird AF."

Reese's response and support from teammates 

Last year, immediately after the interaction, Reese told ESPN that she was waiting to do the gesture. "Caitlin Clark is a hell of a player for sure, but I don't take disrespect lightly," she said.

Reese insituated that Clark had disrespected members of her team and South Carolina players. "I wanted to pick her pocket," Reese continued. "But I had a moment at the end of the game. . . I was just in my bag, in my moment."

Following the win, Reese further discussed the interaction on social media.

"I don't fit in the box that you all want me to be in," Reese wrote. "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. 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."

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

This year, LSU was knocked out of the March Madness competition by Iowa, in a tense game that ESPN said drew in an audience of 12.3 million views making it the “most-watched college basketball game EVER on ESPN platforms.”

In a post-game conference, NBC News reported that Reese shared how the racism, sexism and sexualization in the past year had affected her. "All this has happened since I won the national championship," Reese said. And it sucks, but I still wouldn’t change anything, and I would still sit here and say I’m unapologetically me. I’m going to always leave that mark and be who I am and stand on that.”

Flau’jae Johnson, one of Reese's teammates, said: "I know the real Angel Reese, and the person I see every day is a strong person, is a caring, loving person. But the crown she wears is heavy.”

Fellow teammate Hailey Van Lith also said racism was the reason for the harsh and unrelenting criticism at Reese.“People speak hate into her life," Van Lith said. "I’ve never seen people wish bad things on someone as much as her, and it does not affect her. She comes to practice every day. She lives her life every day."

Van Lith continued, "She lives how she wants to live, and she don’t let nobody change that. That’s the key to life right there. Y’all do not get to her. Let me say it again. Y’all do not get to Angel Reese. So you might want to throw the towel in because you’re wasting your energy.”