Last week was especially eventful for Baltimore’s collegiate basketball superstar, Angel Reese. She and her Louisiana State University Tigers lost a tough game to the Iowa Hawkeyes in the Elite Eight round of the NCAA Division I basketball tournament. She announced she was declaring for the WNBA draft. And, in between, she got compared to a cowardly cartoon dog for breaking down while talking about the death threats she gets.

Welcome to the exhausting world of being an outstanding Black female athlete.

Reese, alongside others such as tennis titan Serena Williams and gymnastics goddess Simone Biles, walks a careful line as thin as the balance beams Biles so skillfully navigates. These women must be excellent — unless that excellence threatens the status quo. They are expected to be polite and never show outsize emotion, even if their non-Black counterparts are championed for the same behavior.

And they must never bring up race, despite that being the nature of the terrible threats and insults against them. And don’t talk about gender, even though their athleticism is used to make them seem less feminine and therefore OK to mess with. They’re not allowed to make it about those things, but everyone else sure is.

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This is a tiresome truth magnification of what non-famous Black women go through every day as we make our way through careers, parent-teacher conferences and homeowners association meetings. Last year, when Reese was being called aggressive and “an idiot” for her trash talking, I interviewed a few Black women from Baltimore who related to the unspoken edict that we “perform niceness” in the face of stereotypes, gaslighting and general nastiness, lest we be accused of being angry or having a bad attitude.

But a superstar like Reese, Williams or Biles must sidestep these social landmines in public, under the harsh glare of lights and the expectation that the money they make somehow excuses the very deliberate abuse they take. It doesn’t escape me that all of these women came to fame very young, when the world felt free to craft expectations of them and punish them for failing to stay within those parameters.

I felt so much for our young, exhausted Baltimorean baller last week, watching her cry during her post-loss press conference as she explained the additional burden to win games while being torn down online and in print by professional commentators and unpaid bigots.

Instead of understanding or sympathy, Reese has to deal with the likes of former NFL player and self-appointed Black explainer Emmanuel Acho, who gave a brief acknowledgment of the abuse heaped on Black women and then attempted to deliver a “gender neutral and racially indifferent” take on her behavior. First of all, this is a “Besides that, how was the theater, Mrs. Lincoln?” situation: You simply cannot separate Reese’s race and gender from her being called a ghetto girl or having AI porn made of her. Taylor Swift got all kinds of defense when the latter happened to her, but for Reese? Crickets.

“Angel Reese, you can’t be the big bad wolf but then kinda cry like ‘Courage the Cowardly Dog,’” Acho said before detailing things Reese has done in games or in press conferences, like when she told an opposing coach to watch her mouth. Is that polite? Nah. But that has nothing to do with people threatening to kill her over a game, and he interestingly left that part out in his scolding.

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Acho’s theory is that, because Randallstown native Reese is a confident, hand-gesturing point monster on the court, she must ignore these personal violations and “take it on the chin,” as he said. Because she makes money and is looking to make more, she can’t complain. Because she plays the same brash, in-your-face game as Iowa’s Caitlin Clark, Reese is rude, but Clark gets a cutesy name like the “Queen of Clapbacks.” So it was hilarious when Acho recorded an apology to those who disagreed with him but never actually to Reese.

When I wrote about Acho’s foolishness on X last week, some person who has now been summarily blocked posted an edited clip of Reese holding what appeared to be a wax mold of her private parts and declared that, because Reese had the mold made, she’d sexualized herself. The implication was that it’s now open season for others to make deepfake porn because Reese chose to present herself sexually.

Not only is that ludicrous, but the longer, unedited clip shows she was getting a bikini wax and someone handed her the residual wax. Gross? Yeah. Oversharing? I think so. A green light to digitally sexually violate her? Are you stupid?

I find it striking that Reese gets a similar lack of grace to what track phenom Sha’Carri Richardson receives, perhaps because both of them sprung to fame in their full-fledged, urban Black girl packages, with full eyelashes and sculpted nails.

They are unconcerned with how people think they’re supposed to look or act, so of course those people make their disapproval of the women known. But Reese isn’t allowed to be human and vulnerable, and Richardson, who in her grief over her mother’s death smoked marijuana and was disqualified from the Beijing Olympics, was afforded no sympathy and called a loser.

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This, of course, reminds me of Biles, who protected herself by withdrawing from several events at the Tokyo Olympics after getting a case of disorientation called “the twisties,” but was called a “sociopath” by provocateur and exquisitely racially problematic ghoul Ben Shapiro because she considered physical well-being more important than winning medals.

And there’s the characterization of Williams, arguably the greatest female tennis player ever, as a masculine, hulking ape in comparison to little thin white women like Maria Sharapova, whom Serena triumphed over 20 of the 22 times they faced each other. Sharapova literally described her so-called rival as having “thick legs and thick arms” as if her size advantage was why she got beat so many times, instead of just being outclassed.

Angel Reese is just at the beginning of her professional career, and I wonder if the terrible punches she’s taken have provided their own sort of preparatory boot camp for what’s to come. The slings and arrows aren’t going to stop, nor will the demands that she continue to take them on the chin. My hope is that she continues to hold her head high, keeps claiming her humanity, looks fabulous and stays winning.

Success being the best revenge, and all that.

Leslie Gray Streeter is a columnist excited about telling Baltimore stories — about us and the things that we care about, that touch us, that tickle us and that make us tick, from parenting to pop culture to the perfect crab cake. She is especially psyched about discussions that we don't usually have. Open mind and a sense of humor required.

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