When NCAA Women’s Basketball announced on Tuesday that fan voting had opened for the Naismith Player of the Year Award, one image of the four finalists did not look like the others. At the top left of the graphic, Elizabeth Kitley of Virginia Tech is featured in the act of shooting and Caitlin Clark of Iowa (top right) is depicted raising a celebratory arm. But the bottom half of the graphic goes disturbingly awry in its presentation of the remaining two finalists, with one of those images sparking accusations of racial bias.
The Naismith trophy rewards game-time achievements, but the NCAA saw fit to showcase Maddy Siegrist of Villanova (bottom left) in an ambiguous state: wearing what appears to be a long-sleeved t-shirt and performing a warmup drill. If this not an image from warmups, then the onus was on the NCAA’s media team to find one more befitting of Siegrist’s basketball acumen, which led to her candidacy for this award in the first place. By portraying Siegrist in this manner, though, the NCAA is shouting to viewers that she should not be considered a favorite to win the trophy.
Benching Aliyah Boston?
Aliyah Boston of South Carolina, the reigning Naismith Player of the Year, is shown riding the bench.
The disparity between the image of Boston, who is Black, sitting on the bench among the three other Naismith finalists, who are white, is striking in its blatant racist overtones. Fans took notice (mostly Black women) and expressed their discontent, with user $tonefaced $werve writing: “Imm let y’all close out this year but let’s talk about how racist this entire POY convo has been at a later date.” Kristin M. Claiborne, meanwhile, questioned the intent behind showing Boston sitting and the other players competing or otherwise standing. “[I]t must be because she’s on the best, solely undefeated team in the country & can rest during games & still win,” Claiborne wrote. “[T]hat or implicit bias.”
It would be for the latter reason, and the proof is in the “multiple approvals” the graphic must have passed through before being tweeted to the public. It is not just that the bias is implicit, though, because one person with a lens wired toward disparaging Black women would be an easy fix, such as by firing the individual who created the graphic or mandating that they attend diversity, equity, and inclusion training. But this is not the work of a lone individual. It is a reflection of a chain of command that either: 1) recognizes the racial bias in the Naismith graphic and doesn’t care or finds it funny; or 2) is totally blind to it. Institutional racial bias by any organization is untenable, but especially for NCAA Women’s Basketball, which historically has battled gender-based discrimination, which also continues to rage wildly.
The Historic Erasure and Oppression of Black Women Athletes
The disparateness in the frequency and quality of media coverage of white players in the WNBA and that league’s Black players was conspicuous enough to warrant researchers at the University of Massachusetts Amherst’s Department of Sport Management to try to quantify “intersectional representation in media narratives.” Risa F. Isard and E. Nicole Melton (2021) concluded in “Does Sport Media Raise Her Name?” that Black women in the the WNBA with darker complexions (especially those presenting as more masculine or androgynous) “received the fewest media mentions” compared to their white female counterparts of any sexual orientation or gender identity and their feminine-presenting Black peers.
Erasing or suppressing the triumphs of Black women in sports (or anywhere in our society) is not unique. Dating back to the Jim Crow South, print media “either entirely ignored the accomplishments of successful Black Olympians or marginalized them, devoting limited space to their stories” (p. 315). Further, Isard and Melton issue a damning indictment of “reputable sports media outlets,” which perpetuate the marginalization and omission of Black women athletes, thereby, “uphold[ing] ideals of white supremacy.” Structural racism “measurably harms Black women and girls, as the dearth of media representation contributes to Black girls having among the lowest sport participation rates, which impacts public health and long-term outcomes,” the researchers conclude.
[Further Reading: The WNBA’s 12 franchises demonstrated this offseason that they cannot be trusted to implement inclusive, equity-based hiring practices on their own]
Some of those long-term outcomes are economic, because mentions beget mentions, which turn into paychecks, whether through NIL endorsements while athletes are still in college or after they step up to the pros in search of sponsorship deals beyond their WNBA rookie salary. Showing Boston at rest, therefore, undercuts her potential by planting the seed that she is lazy — a racist stereotype arising from this nation’s history of slavery.
The NCAA’s shameful portrayal of one of the nation’s top athletes is in lockstep with the race-based insinuations that Boston and the Gamecocks have faced all season. From Connecticut fans on social media referring to the Gamecocks and their all-Black starting lineup as “thugs” to Huskies coach Geno Auriemma fanning those racially-charged flames by remarking on the number of bruises on his white players’ skin, it has been a long year for the No. 1 team in the nation which remains undefeated. No one is roughing up Auriemma’s players, but South Carolina head coach Dawn Staley has her squad playing professional-quality defense on both sides of the ball.
Boston’s two-way dominance is what makes her a finalist for this year’s Naismith trophy, which she won in 2022. She is such a stalwart on offense that she is triple-, quadruple-, or even quintuple-teamed on every possession. Swarmed and contested, she has to shoot against the weight of opponents pulling on her. Staley has a deep bench which allows her to rest Boston: a requirement, given the front-court star’s battles under the basket.
The NCAA’s Deliberate Choice
Twitter user Donna Brown noted the plethora of photographs that exist of Boston performing various acts of basketball greatness, and uploaded examples of No. 4 advancing the ball, cheering her team’s success, shooting the ball, and attempting to get a shot off against three defenders. With so many images to its avail, the NCAA’s choice to show Boston sitting rather than competing comes off as a willed slight aimed to diminish her accomplishments and tilt the voting for this year’s Naismith trophy.
The issues with the NCAA’s graphic are much bigger than one collegiate women’s basketball season and one award. The disrespectful depiction of Boston underscores the racial bias running rampant through U.S. institutions and demands that those protecting, proliferating, and benefitting from these systems be held to account.
Isard, Reissa F. and Melton, E. Nicole. (September 2021). “Does sport media raise her name? Examining intersectional representation in media narratives,” Sport, Business and Management: An International Journal. DOI: 10.1108/SBM-02-2021-0015.
A word before you go:
As an independent journalist, my livelihood depends on you, dear reader. If you liked this article, please show your support. My ability to do this depends on you!