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LSU-Iowa is as much about politics as it is about basketball

Last time LSU and Iowa’s women’s basketball teams faced off, the politics of race and gender were in the air. This year is no different.


UPDATE (April 1, 2024, 9:31 p.m. ET): Led by star Caitlin Clark’s 41 points and nine three-pointers, Iowa defeated LSU 94-87 on Monday night to advance to the Final Four on Friday.

The NCAA women’s basketball quarterfinal matchup between Louisiana State University and the University of Iowa is arguably the most highly anticipated game in the history of women’s basketball. 

The teams locked horns in the NCAA tournament last year, pitting superstars Angel Reese and Caitlin Clark against one another in the championship game. And the politics in tonight's game are just as omnipresent.

For context, last year’s matchup set off a powder keg of punditry that transformed a spirited competition between two of the NCAA’s best players — and best trash-talkers — into a political Rorschach test. The optics of a mostly white Iowa team facing a mostly Black LSU team seemed to lend to some racial tribalism that played out online and in the media. Clark, the biggest star in college sports, was being lionized by news outlets at the same time some outlets were being criticized for their coverage of Black women in the tournament. And for some people, this helped make supporting LSU seem like a proxy for supporting Black women. This despite the fact LSU’s decorated coach, Kim Mulkey, has faced allegations she’s ostracized and dehumanized some of her former players, a group largely comprised of Black women -- including Brittney Griner, who played for Mulkey at Baylor.  

The outcry after a victorious Reese taunted Clark when it became clear that LSU would win the championship game carried racial undertones and included pearl-clutching that spoke to a widespread ignorance about the competitiveness in women’s basketball. Those responses seemed to arise out of an expectation that women athletes play nice with each other. So last year’s game touched on the politics of race, gender, business, power and privilege. 

This year, all the same dynamics remain — and they’ve only been heightened. Clark has been the biggest name — and biggest draw — in college basketball. There are still questions about how much her being white plays a role in her popularity. And despite Mulkey’s best efforts, her fraught (or nonexistent) relationships with some former players continue to complicate her legacy as a coach — and the perception of LSU’s basketball program. The fact that Reese and Clark felt a need to pre-empt Monday's game by downplaying suggestions that they hold ill will toward one another is yet more evidence that the potent politics that colored last year's matchup have bled into this year's, too.

CORRECTION (April 1, 2024, 8:54 p.m. ET): A previous version of this article described Monday night’s Iowa-LSU game as a semifinal matchup. It is a quarterfinal game.