Diggins-Smith, a two-time First Team All-American, was one of the first prominent women’s college basketball players to embrace looking feminine on the court. Seeing a Black woman do that on a national stage had a lasting impact on Walker as a young Black player.
‘She’s so pretty and she just carries herself so nice and she looks so classy, but on the court she does the same thing,’ the Tennessee Lady Vols guard remembered thinking. ‘She still looks classy, looks put together, but she’s a beast, you know? She can knock down shots, play defense, all of that.’
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Chicago Sky point guard Dana Evans said Diggins-Smith, now a six-time WNBA All-Star, marked the beginning of the new generation of players – a generation of Black women who choose to be authentically themselves on the court.
‘I think she really changed things around where you’re looking girly, you’re able to show different things on the court,’ said Evans. ‘I think she was one of the players to kind of start that and I think a lot of players fed off of that.’
‘Seeing that made my heart hurt’
After Tennessee’s lackluster start to the season, a faction of fans attacked Key on social media for wearing eyelash extensions and nails, despite the fact that she wore them during her career-best junior season, too.
Some accused Key of caring about her looks more than winning, or claimed she was playing poorly because of her nails and eyelashes. Key declined to comment for this story.
The accusations highlighted how women’s basketball still deals with racism and misogyny.
‘Seeing those comments kind of made my heart drop, because nobody deserves to have to deal with that,’ South Carolina guard Brea Beal said. ‘Seeing that made my heart hurt, because I’ve seen those comments for myself and my teammates or people I’m friends with in the basketball community. It’s not a good feeling to have to deal with that, and it kind of weighs heavy on your mind, people blaming how I’m playing on my appearance. For some people, it starts to mess with them.’
Walker is one of several Lady Vols who wear eyelash extensions and said there’s a lack of understanding behind the criticism. Whenever she gets her lashes done, it’s after all her basketball responsibilities are taken care of.
‘They just have their opinions on it and it feels like, ‘Oh, she missed that shot because she can’t see because of her lashes,’ but no, I can see perfectly fine. I just missed the shot,’ Walker said. ‘I feel like a lot of comments are like that, but it’s just because they truly don’t understand and they don’t know. And so I think that the education piece is the best part.’
The racism behind the criticism
When Evans was at Louisville, people gave her the nickname ‘lashes.’
Some fans even got sunglasses with lashes on them. Evans, a two-time ACC Player of the Year, has worn eyelash extensions since high school, but it became part of her brand at Louisville. Now, she has a partnership with OpulenceMD Beauty, promoting safe eye beauty for all women – and it includes a lash vending machine at Louisville.
The only way Beal could express herself on the court growing up was painting her nails pink. But when she got to college, she found confidence in wearing lash extensions, nails and different hairstyles.
How Beal, Walker, Evans and other players choose to express themselves on the court is part of who they are. Evans said it’s clear that comments like the ones directed at Key are racist, and people know it.
‘It’s not fair to us, and as a fan, I feel like – you have a lot of Black women that are expressing themselves. Why are you trying to downgrade them?’ Evans said. ‘Why are you trying to make them feel less than themselves, when you should be supporting them when they’re playing for your team?’
Even though there are non-Black players who wear lashes, it’s Black women being targeted.
‘I think they have to just accept it, because the majority of the women are Black players. I mean, you can even look in the WNBA, majority of the players are Black,’ Evans said. ‘They have to adjust to Black women being able to express themselves and they have to live with it. They just have to accept it, because we’re here to stay.’
How players feel empowered and market themselves
With the new generation of players came a new era of college sports.
There is more at stake for players when it comes to how they present themselves on the court and on social media because of opportunities for name, image and likeness deals.
‘I definitely think for Black women in any sport, I feel like you have to do the extra things to be included, or to be broadcasted more compared to other athletes,’ Beal said. ‘So I do feel like naturally, as bad as it sounds, people do put Black athletes in that box, and they have to do crazy things or stand out to be actually talked about or noticed.’
WNBA players aren’t making millions of dollars like NBA players, and Evans said they constantly have to market themselves and find other avenues to make money.
‘We have to show how marketable we are,’ Evans said, ‘and how we’re also a basketball player – but we can also model, we can be pretty, we can do other things.’
But it’s also about inspiring the next generation of players, as Diggins-Smith inspired Evans and Walker.
‘It’s so many girls that sometimes are nervous to just be themselves,’ Evans said. ‘But I think as WNBA players, I think we’re setting a standard and letting them know that it’s OK to be you. It’s OK if you want to wear suits, if you want to wear heels. I think we’re setting that standard and letting people know that they can just be themselves.’