Women In Sports

How Gen Z Women Athletes Are Writing Their Own Storylines

LSU superstars Angel Reese and Flau’jae Johnson may be laying the groundwork for a new way for women to make money in sports.

by Sarah Wheeler
Originally Published: 
Women In Sports Issue

A recent video on Angel Reese’s TikTok flips back and forth between Reese as a little girl, smiling big and clutching a basketball, and Reese now. (Current Reese is, of course, the 6-foot-10 Louisiana State University women’s basketball star who led her team to their first championship in April.) In the present-day photo, taken on the court, she gives the camera the same sweet grin and a peace sign.

It calls to mind the supposedly confrontational hand gesture Reese flashed her opponent Caitlin Clark in the final game of this year’s tournament, which sparked a vehement reaction (Keith Olbermann called her a “f*cking idiot”), and then, a much-needed counteraction (Clark herself repeatedly insisted it was all good, and many spoke out about the racist double standard). The time-warp TikTok post has 67,000 likes, a typical showing from Reese’s 2.5 million followers. One person commented, “my teacher asked me who i look up to, i said Angel Reese ….she a menace everyone hated on her n she still got tha ring.”

With a Sports Illustrated Swimsuit Edition cover; an estimated $1.6 million in name, image, and likeness deals; and a ring to boot, Reese is proving that young women athletes — Black young women, no less — can be all the things, no apologies needed. It’s not just the success, though, that is admirable. It’s that she’s crafting her own self-mythology, her own narrative — no sports media intermediary necessary.

She’s not the only one. Young women like Reese’s LSU teammate Flau’jae Johnson, LSU gymnast Olivia Dunne, and the WNBA’s Haley Jones and are joining Reese in realizing the dream of getting paid, celebrating fashion, taking ownership over their sexuality, and being the kind of “menace” that inspires respect. These Gen Z athletes may be laying the groundwork for a new way for women to make money in sports.

Katie Heindl, who writes the newsletter Basketball Feelings, explains that while there have always been “a dedicated and passionate few who’ve covered women’s sports,” female athletes are not assumed to have the same audience as their male counterparts. Less coverage means fewer narratives, so moments like the Reese-Clark hand-gesture quickly become the only storyline.

Compare this, say, to a scandal from last year’s NBA season, when Golden State Warriors star Draymond Green punched teammate Jordan Poole in the face. The incident garnered nuanced responses (and not a peep from Olbermann). Green already has a reputation for being intense and reactionary, but even in such an extreme case, many chalked his behavior up to drive and a love of the game.

To Heindl’s point, in 2015, when researchers asked college students to name a female athlete, they found that most participants named one of the same few names, most of whom had scandal attached to them. “Research presented shows that female athletes are delegitimized and sexualized as a result of a lack of proficient coverage of their athletic skills and pursuits,” the study author argued.

Female athletes like Megan Rapinoe, a longstanding activist for women’s sports, can have one bad game and find their moral characters questioned. But NBA Hall-of-Famer Karl Malone’s actual scandal, involving his impregnation of a 13-year-old girl as a 20-year-old college athlete (and denial, until recently, of it), has been public knowledge for decades with few repercussions.

Male athletes get to be full people. Green can be an *ssh*le who may have cost his team a championship and a tenacious player who is worthy of admiration. But if the media refuse to cover women’s sports with any regularity, all we can see are outlying events or opinions.

When I was 21, the age Reese is now, my favorite athlete was Red Sox outfielder Manny Ramirez. He was great at baseball, of course, but he was equally known for his zero-f*cks-given personality. He pissed inside the Red Sox’s historic scoreboard, the Green Monster, during games. He dodged the check at dinner. He stuffed his locker with items pilfered from other players. He had a loose relationship with schedules. His fans were accepting of his hijinks, even when they hindered the team. The press adopted the phrase “Manny Being Manny” to explain them away. There’s even a children’s book about Ramirez with this title, which I now read to my kids, as an instructive tale about sticking to your passions, no matter what people say.

I thought of Manny, and his fans’ relationship to his flaws, when Heidl told me this: “Women in the spotlight, no matter their field of work, are held to a paternalistic standard of behavior — whether outright or subliminal. Don’t be too loud, too aggressive, too assertive, too ambitious, too much. It’s a problem in any industry, but you can see the disconnect very clearly in sports, where women are more often than not called things like sore losers or poor sports where their male counterparts are called driven, hungry competitors. Add a racialized element and it gets uglier.” Manny was certainly, at times, told he was a lot. But it didn’t keep him from growing his fanbase or advancing his career, and it didn’t become the dominant narrative, except fondly.

If young women athletes like Reese and Johnson are being given the message not to be too much, they are paying little mind. Reese’s response to the hand-gesture hullabaloo was unapologetic. What’s more, she didn’t seem to lose much sleep over it.

“I don’t fit the narrative of what people think you’re supposed to act like,” she told ESPN. “I am who I am.” Her social media is a mix of superstar bluster (“sit with winners the conversation is different”), inspirational messages (“beauty is found in imperfections''), and, of course, the occasional product promotion (“thank you wingstop for feuling my birthday weekend brunch!”). On her website, you can buy merch sporting her nickname “Bayou Barbie” or her catchphrase “unapologetically me.”

Johnson’s feed is similar, but with an added silliness and a healthy dose of freestyles. You can find her doing a little shoulder dance while being made-up, talking with her mouth full of toothpaste, or driving around L.A., ribbing her parents about forgetting their own anniversary. But wherever she is, she truly seems to be having a good time. Her rhymes are all braggadocio, though well-deserved. “Everything I do keep going viral,” she raps. Indeed.

The result of both of their social media personas, though slightly different in flavor, is a positive, unguarded, slightly egomaniacal and very female vibe. They don’t have to be “one of the guys” or choose between being role models and being incredibly sure of themselves.

In June 2021, the NCAA changed its restrictions on college athletes’ control over their name, image, and likeness. For more than a century, the league had kept student athletes from profiting off autographs or endorsements, or even having a say in whether, for example, their image was used in a video game. These rules meant that the colleges, instead, made money off the efforts of their athletes, under the suspect auspices that school sports needed to maintain an “amateur” status. Of course, there were athletes who managed to skirt the rules, but there were also just as many who had to leave their college careers for financial reasons or who rushed professional careers because of the increased opportunities.

But after the Supreme Court ruled that some of these regulations violated antitrust laws, the NCAA changed its tune, and though some athletes are still experiencing restrictions, many are clambering to get their long-overdue piece of the pie. In fact, female athletes may be the biggest winners from these changes. Especially on social media, many sponsored products are geared toward women. And because female athletes are often required to complete more years of college before going pro — in basketball, men can be drafted to the NBA after just one year, while women must complete three — they have more time and motivation to secure strong sponsorships.

Another major cultural shift has occurred since the reign of Manny Ramirez, one that complicates narratives and disempowers the gatekeepers: the advent of social media. Just a few years into the game, Reese has more TikTok followers than Serena Williams. It has been said that, during her championship win, she got more Instagram followers in six hours than any male NCAA basketball player has, period. It seems like every day, the action in sports shifts further from networks and journalists and closer to athletes themselves — through their social media platforms. This can be bad, say, for folks like the NBA’s Ja Morant, who was recently suspended for 25 games for flashing a gun in an Instagram video (for the second time, ahem). But for those who use it wisely, like Reese and Johnson, an online presence is a powerful tool not just for marketing but for endearing the masses and setting the record straight, when needed. Johnson, for example, doesn’t need a devoted press outlet, like the Boston Globe for Manny Ramirez, to cover how adorable she is in Delta first-class with her Benadryl and bonnet. She gets ownership over her own public persona, and millions respond emphatically. Flau’jae being Flau’jae, people.

Then, of course, there’s the sexuality of it all. Last fall, the New York Times published a piece on college women athletes growing their social media followings and receiving lucrative endorsements, questioning the way they went about it. (The headline: “New Endorsements for College Athletes Resurface an Old Concern: Sex Sells.”) The writer notes that on social media, many college women athletes “post suggestive images of themselves that seem to cater to the male gaze.”

When I spoke to social media strategist Yvonne Abt, however, she told me that for most accounts like Reese’s, the viewership is mostly made up of peers — other women around the same age. My generation, with our go-to media outlets in mind, imagines a picture of a college woman athlete in a bikini as geared toward the male gaze. But Reese and Johnson aren’t so much making the case that their attractiveness has nothing to do with their athleticism as they are insisting that the two can coexist. Both women’s social media feeds are full of pictures of them in bathing suits, cute going-out fits, and high fashion. “Being young & sexy is so fun!” Reese tells us on Instagram. She recently captioned a post of herself in a skin-tight sheer dress (completely fabulous) with “Love staring at his chick…SHE GORGEOUS.”

We are accustomed to women having to use their looks to sell everything — not just products but their own worth as humans and stars. But these women are insisting that celebrating their looks, loving clothes, and being athletic are not threatening to one another. It’s their story to tell, however they want to tell it.

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