Angel Reese. Apr 2, 2023; Dallas, TX, USA; LSU Lady Tigers forward Angel Reese (10) celebrates during the NCAA Womens Basketball Final Four National Championship against the Iowa Hawkeyes at American Airlines Center. Mandatory Credit: Kirby Lee-USA TODAY Sports

In the high-stress world of collegiate athletics where young athletes can become celebrities overnight, media speculation has become a significant problem for stars like LSU’s Angel Reese. On November 17, Reese sat out LSU’s game against Southeastern Louisiana following a second half against Kent State on November 14th where Reese was also benched. That was a shocking absence, considering Reese is a walking double-double, a defending national champion, and the Most Outstanding Player of the 2023 NCAA national tournament.

To say that Reese’s absence has ignited a storm of conjecture is an understatement. The media’s speculation has become so severe that Reese tweeted “please don’t believe everything you read” on November 19th before sitting out once again on November 21st when LSU defeated Texas Southern 106-47. 

In many ways, the buzz makes sense. There’s an air of mystery surrounding Reese’s absence and in the face of uncertainty, it’s human nature to fill in the blanks. And given all that’s at stake in a wild women’s basketball season that feels like anyone’s game at this point, it can be argued that some level of curiosity surrounding high-profile players like Angel Reese is a good thing.

After all, gaining eyes in women’s sports is almost always beneficial as increased attention to the sport at large fuels growth in a historically underrepresented and under-resourced industry. People are paying attention to women’s college hoops like never before and female athletes should be the topic of everyday conversation, just as their male counterparts so often are. But it’s the nature, not the presence, of the speculation surrounding Reese that’s unsettling.

Over the past few weeks, Reese’s absence has been attributed to everything from her grades to her attitude. And these reports are fueled in large part by rumors and cryptic social media posts rather than credible sources.

“It’s wrong,” said Kevin Robbins, a professor of practice at the University of Texas School of Journalism and Media on such speculation. Robbins adds that in the quest for attention and relevance, sports media, much like the media at large, often succumbs to the temptation of speculation.

The rush to be the first to report on a story can overshadow the need for accurate and verified information. But according to Robbins, this impulse to speculate has “sunk so many stories of people over the years.” It leaves athletes vulnerable to the harmful consequences of baseless rumors.

It’s also impossible to ignore the racial undertones of implying that a young, Black athlete like Angel Reese has an attitude problem and/or a low GPA. Reese certainly faced criticism for how the former was perceived when she mimicked Iowa star Caitlin Clark’s “You can’t see me” gesture and pointed to her ring finger en route to dominating Iowa in last year’s championship. Although Clark had engaged in similar displays of confidence throughout the season, Reese was so heavily criticized that the word “classless” trended on the website formally known as Twitter following LSU’s historic win.

This season, it’s also entirely possible that Reese isn’t playing for personal reasons that have nothing to do with her attitude and grades. But the default assumptions place the onus of responsibility on Reese, rather than giving her the benefit of the doubt. 

Don’t Blame the Player(s)

Although disingenuous, it’s somewhat unsurprising that sports media is making such assumptions. In fact, it’s become a fairly common practice within the industry to assume the worst about college athletes who frequently face criticism for sitting out games or taking time off for unique, individual circumstances. For instance, at the end of every college football season, star players sit out bowl games to avoid injury and maintain their draft status, and, like clockwork, are branded as “selfish,” “disloyal,” or, in the words of Kirk Herbstreit, are seen as contributing to “an era of player [that] just doesn’t love football.”

In reality, these athletes are, more often than not, sitting out to preserve their health and future livelihood. There are perfectly understandable reasons to say no to a risky, non-playoff bowl game that will only pad their coach’s resume and offer few professional benefits to the athletes themselves. 

This disdain isn’t reserved only for college football players. Although transfers often receive similar criticism for leaving their teams mid-career (never mind that coaches frequently do the same without critique), across sports, mental health is the most common reason college athletes have considered transferring in recent years.

According to the NCAA, 61 percent of women and 40 percent of male athletes who contemplated transferring in 2021-2022 considered doing so for mental health reasons, followed by conflicts with coaches or teammates, and concerns over playing time–all of which are legitimate reasons to change programs. But blame, buzzwords and fiery speculation, rather than pausing to listen to the athletes and look at the facts, generate significant press year after year.

The Ethics of Speculation

Is it legal and acceptable for sports media to fill in the blanks and promote polarizing commentary surrounding college athletes? Sure. Is it ethical? That’s where things get dicey.

Robbins underscores the ethical concerns surrounding media speculation, emphasizing two codes of ethics that sports journalists adhere to–the Society of Professional Journalists code of ethics and the Associated Press Sports Editors–in addition to codes of ethics provided by their outlets. The SPJ code, similar to the Hippocratic Oath, emphasizes the principle of “do no harm.” However, Robbins raises questions about whether speculation adheres to this ethical guideline, considering the potential harm it can inflict on athletes like Angel Reese who are often victims of narratives beyond their influence or control.

“At the moment, we do not know officially why [Reese] was pulled from that game and then didn’t play in the second half,” Robbins says of LSU’s games against Kent State and Southeastern Louisiana. And although speculation surrounding her absence has boiled down to aforementioned grade and attitude related issues are largely unverified, there is vast potential for speculation and misinformation to cause actual harm to young athletes in the process. 

“So let’s take those two examples,” Robbins says. “One implies she’s not making the grades, the other implies that she’s got a bad attitude. Those things are alive and they’re going to live now forever because they’ve been out there. You can’t take that away. You’ve planted a suggestion and so that follows her even if it’s untrue. I don’t see how that’s not harmful to someone.”

The Price of a Bad Reputation

Although it can be tempting to brush off such speculation as just that–supposition and shallow rumors, college athletes have become even higher-profile celebrities with the advent of NIL so their reputations matter more now than ever. Reese’s NIL valuation, for example, currently sits at $1.3 million, fueled by her unique Bayou Barbie branding, which has landed her six-figure deals with lucrative companies like Mercedes and Coach.  Reese’s celebrity status has reached such a significant level that she revealed in August that she’s taking online classes at LSU to maintain a low profile.

College athletes are also uniquely susceptible to mental health issues, burnout, and threats to identity when they physically cannot play, whether that’s due to injury or any litany of other reasons that can limit their productivity and threaten their personal health. College athletes’ earning potential is also under threat when they don’t play because NIL deals and even scholarships have the potential to be rescinded due to a lack of productivity. 

In other words, the unique pressures that have always existed for college athletes are still here. And in addition, there’s a lot more monetarily at stake now than, say ten years ago, when the character of college athletes are called into question. And although Reese has masterfully turned bad press into millions of dollars in the past, the discourse surrounding her now could hurt her, as ambiguity is rarely on the side of college athletes.

Tigers head coach Kim Mulkey has cleared up some uncertainty surrounding Reese, but not much. “It’s very obvious Angel was not in uniform,” Mulkey said during the postgame press conference following LSU’s dominance against Southeastern Louisiana. “Angel is a part of this basketball team and we hope to see her sooner rather than later…I’m not going to answer anymore. That’s it. That’s all y’all need to know, OK?” 

With so much happening all at once, there could be many reasons Mulkey has chosen to be vague surrounding Reese’s absence. It’s worth asking: could Mulkey’s non-response be her way of guaranteeing Reese a sense of anonymity and privacy amid a hostile news cycle? Mulkey confirmed as much following LSU’s victory over Texas Southern, addressing the media in the postgame press conference: “Sometimes you want to know more than you’re entitled to know. I’m trying to protect my players.”

Robbins believes that Mulkey could be sincere in her desire to protect her players by pleading the fifth. “It could be [the case], but that’s the problem. We don’t know because the language she’s using is so general. And if that’s the case, wouldn’t you feel like it’s the coach’s responsibility to contain these rumors and protect her player and protect her program?”

Damage Control in the Digital Age

Speculation, fueled by cryptic social media messages and ambiguous circumstances, can have lasting repercussions on an athlete’s reputation. Reflecting on the evolving landscape of journalism, Robbins acknowledges the challenges posed by the rise of social media. Before just anyone could weigh in on their digital platform of choice, the dynamics were different, but in today’s fast-paced digital era, rumors can multiply exponentially, making it crucial for coaches and institutions to control the narrative. 

“[Mulkey] doesn’t have to be specific about it,” Robbins says. “But at least she can eliminate some of the possibilities at this point. And she can come out and say ‘This has nothing to do with attitude and this has nothing to do with grades and so you can forget that.’ And then it’s on the record, it’s attributed to her, and that’s what needs to happen.”

According to Robbins, maintaining the integrity of truth in such situations is “on the coach and [Kim Mulkey] needs to be forthright. Angel Reese is one of the biggest names in women’s college basketball…so Kim Mulkey is responsible to attend to this, to control rumors and speculation now because it’s harming her player, it’s potentially harming her program, her reputation.”

As the women’s basketball college season unfolds, the ethical considerations surrounding media speculation have thus far taken center stage amid an otherwise positive and exciting news cycle. The potential harm to athletes, already navigating a demanding and stressful work environment, raises questions about the responsibility of sports media and the institutions they cover. The need for responsible reporting, adherence to ethical guidelines, and the protection of athletes from unwarranted speculation become paramount when the human cost is so high.

About Katie Lever

Dr. Katie Lever is a former Division 1 athlete and current freelance sports writer whose work has appeared in Global Sport Matters, Sportico, Extra Points, Forbes, and other outlets. She is also the award-winning author of Surviving the Second Tier, a dystopian novel about the dark side of the college sports industry, available on Amazon. Follow Katie on Twitter and Instagram: @leverfever.