PHOTO: LSU’s Angel Reese (10) and Iowa’s Caitlin Clark lifted their sport in the 2023 NCAA women’s Final Four, but the discussion later shifted to taunting.
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By TOM SHANAHAN
We should be still awash in the glow surrounding the 2023 LSU-Iowa NCAA women’s basketball title. The parallels with the 1979 Michigan State-Indiana State men’s championship deserve more discussion.
When Michigan State’s Magic Johnson faced Indiana’s State’s Larry Bird, the showdown captivated the nation. The 24.1 TV audience rating remains a record (as does Michigan State’s record TV audience of 33 million against Notre Dame in the 1966 Game of the Century).
In the aftermath, network broadcast rights soared. Final Fours were moved from 15,000-seat basketball arenas to 60,000-plus football stadiums. The men’s game has never looked back. Seth Davis, the acclaimed sportswriter and CBS studio host, wrote a 2010 book about the game’s impact: “When March Went Mad: The Game That Transformed Basketball.”
So, what might LSU and Angel Reese defeating Iowa and Caitlin Clark mean to the women’s basketball’s future? The game drew a record ESPN TV audience of 9.9 million, including a peak audience of 12.6 million.
Sadly, though, the blame game overtook discussions of exciting progress in women’s game credibility. Reese was unfairly singled out for taunting Clark. The social media world jumped on Reese, even though two days earlier in the semifinals Clark used the same fake wrestling taunt against her vanquished opponent, South Carolina.
But don’t blame Reese or Clark.
Blame John Cena, who acts out fake wrestling scripts, for popularizing a taunt of waving his hand across his face to say, “You can’t see me.”
When did unsportsmanlike behavior become cool?
Fake wrestling – please don’t call it pro wrestling – has sunk its ugly tentacles into legitimate sports. Fake wrestling is the Kardashians of the sports world – popular and profitable but shallow.
The other Magic-Bird parallel, of course, was the elephant in the room.
Reese is Black and from a city background, Baltimore. Clark is White and from a farm state, Iowa. An uncomfortable Black vs. White conversation emerged because, well, this is America. Reese got trapped into a villain’s role.
But it didn’t have to be that way. Magic is Black and from the city courts in Lansing, Michigan, while Bird is white and from the countryside, French Lick, Indiana.
Yes, the comparisons are different since Magic’s effervescent personality and Bird’s dour avoidance of the media were both well-known from a season of national coverage. Magic and Bird were wary of each other in college but only because they didn’t know each other. They became great friends and rivals in the NBA.
So far, we’ve only just met Reese and Clark. We don’t know enough about their personalities. They’ll probably like each other if they meet – they’ll learn just as Magic and Bird they share plenty in common despite different backgrounds.
When Reese and Clark next meet they should mimic Cheryl Miller, Diana Taurasi, Sue Bird, Maya Moore, Candance Parker, Brittany Griner or others. Not John Cena. He wouldn’t survive 10 seconds against a legitimate world-class wrestler.
Or take a page from LeBron James.
Remember the 2015 NBA finals when James, then playing for the Cleveland Cavaliers, warmed up before Game 3 of the NBA finals against Golden State? James saw Cleveland Browns legend Jim Brown sitting courtside and bowed to him.
There is so much cruel irony to fake wrestling’s popularity overtaking the women’s Final Four storyline. Legitimate wrestlers toil in anonymity while scraping up funds to pursue their dreams of Olympic glory. Fake wrestlers make their money acting out scripts written on the backs of a sport dating to the original Greek Olympics.
Stephen Neal, a three-time Super Bowl champion with the New England Patriots, was a two-time NCAA heavyweight wrestling champion, winner of the Dan Hodge Trophy (college wrestling’s Heisman) and the 1999 World Wrestling Championship freestyle heavyweight gold medal in Ankara, Turkey, before he took up football.
When Neal joined the Patriots, his teammates asked him if he wanted to go into pro wrestling. Sportswriters learn early legitimate wrestlers don’t think that question is funny. Neal responded he wasn’t into acting. Neal’s teammates, legitimate athletes, didn’t understand the absurdity of the question. They didn’t ask Tom Brady after filming his first commercial if he planned to go into acting.
And for fake wrestling enthusiasts reading htis, don’t toss Brock Lesnar’s name into the ring for credibility. For one, Neal beat Lesnar in the 1999 NCAA final to finish an unbeaten season. Neal moved onto a 10-year NFL career. Lesnar won his NCAA title in 2000, but when he tried to cross over into the NFL, he was cut by the Minnesota Vikings. Then, he cashed in on fake wrestling. The best world-class wrestlers are on another level. Nobody compares Tom Brady with his backups.
The taunting imbroglio also ensnared the First Lady, Jill Biden. She attended the final and was so enthralled with the performances she naively suggested both LSU and Iowa visit the White House. Her focus was on viewing the 2023 Final Four as a transformative moment.
She didn’t understand runners-up don’t share the stage with champions. And no doubt Larry Bird would have scoffed at an invitation to join Magic’s White House stage as a friend or a foe. The First Lady’s office issued a clarification. It was a mistake inflamed by the blame-game backlash.
Remember that Reese and Clark are college kids. They’ll learn with time life turns around to bite you from behind. But maybe, hopefully, they’ll avoid stooping to mimic fake wrestling taunts.
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