it’s rarely so black and white…

Every now and then as I attempt to discern a wise angle of a current event, I come across someone who says it better. That’s a fact, friends; sometimes someone else says it better. Today I was playing with college basketball — women’s college basketball, in fact. But in all reality, let me suggest this has nothing to do with sports and everything to do with how some of our more messy cultural narratives are polluting far more than politics. Hence, in the words of popular IndyStar columnist Gregg Doyel, with all bolded emphasis mine, here’s what happened in this year’s final, female college game. I’ll even let Doyel have today’s last word. It’s just that good…

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This thing has grown out of control, the culture wars coming to women’s college basketball, where you’ve got a side and they’ve got a side and Caitlin Clark is wrong – no, Angel Reese is wrong. No, you’re just saying that because you’re racist.

We’ve been here before, so many times. Remember that word game we played as kids, called Mad Libs – seriously – where you started with a sentence and replaced various words to see what hilarity the new sentence would produce? Let’s try it here:

This thing has grown out of control, the culture wars coming to politics, where you’ve got a side and they’ve got a side and Matt Gaetz is wrong – no, Kamala Harris is wrong. No, you’re just saying that because you’re racist.

Again: This thing has grown out of control, the culture wars coming to the criminal justice system, where you’ve got a side and they’ve got a side and indicted former President Donald Trump is wrong – no, New York City district attorney Alvin Bragg is wrong. No, you’re just saying that because you’re racist.

Exhausting, all of it. Everybody’s talking and nobody’s listening, but everyone has a role to play so the cycle continues. We’re racing to the bottom, and we’re getting there in a hurry. Apparently this is me playing my role, the idiot who thinks he can calm the situation by explaining the truth: Your side over there, the one seeing black, and their side over there, the one seeing white? Maybe you’re both wrong.

For those who don’t know the topic – congratulations to you, seriously – here’s Caitlin Clark v. Angel Reese in a nutshell. Clark plays for Iowa, Reese for LSU. They played for the national championship on Sunday. In the final seconds of LSU’s 102-85 win, Reese taunted Clark by waving her hand in front of her face, pro wrestler John Cena’s trademark gesture that apparently means “you can’t see me” because “I’m a superhero.” Something like that.

Anyway, Reese then followed Clark for several steps, pointing to one of her fingers, where the championship ring will fit nicely. People flipped out. However. Two games ago, in the Elite Eight, Clark taunted Louisville’s Hailey Van Lith with the same gesture. Yes, Clark did the “you can’t see me” gesture at Van Lith, not at the Iowa bench as many on her side want to believe. The video is clear… This isn’t hard, people.

Well, maybe this is hard. Because people are so determined to see what they want to see, they miss what’s really there. Seriously, folks on Clark’s side – I don’t want to say it’s just Iowa fans, because it’s not, and in fact I’ve seen many criticizing her taunting of Van Lith – are convinced she was doing the gesture to her own bench. It’s not true, but it feels better to say that, right?

Other people, meanwhile, are determined to see Reese’s taunting in a vacuum, everything else be damned. Wait, everything else? What am I talking about? There isn’t anything else, because anything else would suggest gray, and we’re not here for gray. We’re here for black and white. Not sure if that’s an analogy or not.

The easiest thing is to point a crooked finger and use an explosive word. People defending Angel Reese are “woke.” People defending Caitlin Clark are “racist.” Understanding what has really happened here, and why, requires some work. Most folks, no, they’re not willing to put in the work. So much easier to make our determination by checking one single box. You know the box. Don’t make me say it out loud.

But here’s some background. Louisville’s Van Lith, like Clark a high-volume shooter and talker of trash, was giving Clark the business late in their Elite Eight game, a 97-83 blowout for Iowa. Video catches Clark telling Van Lith (who is white, if it matters): “You’re down by 15 points. Shut up.” Point for Clark.

Here’s some more background. In Iowa’s next game, the Final Four against South Carolina, Clark is defending Gamecocks guard Raven Johnson on the perimeter. Johnson is open for a 3-pointer – she was 14-for-58 from distance this season (24.1%) – and Clark savagely dismisses her with a wave of the hand. Johnson is Black, if it matters. Did it matter, in that moment? No. Clark wasn’t being racist. She wasn’t exactly exuding class, but that was merely one basketball player disrespecting another, color be damned. That’s what I believe anyway.

Still, point against Clark for a lack of class.

Now then, Angel Reese – like Clark, like Van Lith, like Johnson – has a backstory of her own. Earlier this season, after Reese blocked a shot against Arkansas while holding her shoe and then celebrated passionately, a sequence that had “Angel Reese” trending on Twitter that night, she responded with a tweet of her own: “I’m too hood. I’m too ghetto. I don’t fit the narrative and I’m OK with that. I’m from Baltimore where you hoop outside and talk trash. … Let’s normalize women showing passion for the game instead of it being ‘embarrassing.’”

More backstory: For years Reese has attended USA Basketball tryouts with Hailey Van Lith and Raven Johnson. Did they strike up friendships during such a bonding process? Wouldn’t be a surprise. Also, and more importantly, the All-American Reese sees herself – and correctly so – as a voice for the relatively voiceless among women’s college basketball players in general, and Black women’s college basketball players in particular. After the Iowa game, asked about her taunting of Clark, Reese said the following: “I don’t fit the narrative. I don’t fit the box that y’all want me to be in. ‘I’m too hood. I’m too ghetto.’ Y’all told me that all year. When other people do it, y’all don’t say nothing. This was for the people that look like me.”

When other people do it…

Other people making the “you can’t see me” gesture, like Caitlin Clark.

The people that look like me…

People like Raven Johnson.

Those are the facts. That’s the gray amid the black and white. Bottom line, here’s what I think: Caitlin Clark, the most talented player in every game she ever has and ever will play, could learn how to win with grace. Angel Reese, who decided to give Clark a taste of her own medicine, served up a larger dose than necessary.

Who’s right? Nobody. Who’s wrong? Everybody. And this paragraph is referring to a lot more than two people.