From NIL to social evolution, women in sports now have more control of their own style
While her teammates were dressed in practice pinnies and baggy hoodies, UNC junior guard Deja Kelly donned a skin-tight Carolina blue shirt as she laced up for a shootaround at the NCAA Tournament. Her hair was slicked back, her edges laid in her signature “D-I do.”
She was rocking pink acrylic nails and eyelash extensions. Although she wasn’t wearing any foundation or concealer — she’s not a big fan of heavy makeup during games — her eyebrows were plucked to perfection, and the gloss on her lips sparkled under the fluorescent overhead lights.
The focus on her appearance hasn’t stopped the All-ACC first-team honoree from being a stone-cold killer on the court. Kelly has earned All-American honorable mention honors the past two seasons, and led the Tar Heels in scoring with 16 points per game as a junior.
The hair, the nails, the lashes — and the top-tier midrange game — it’s all part of the Deja Kelly package.
She’s not alone in today’s world of women’s hoops. The overlap of Name, Image and Likeness (NIL) deals — providing financial incentive for glamming up — and increased personal autonomy have created a much larger breadth of self-expression. Crafting a signature look is more important now than ever, both culturally and economically.
“This generation, they’re very used to self-expression,” said Susan Shackelford, author of ”Hoops and Heroes,” and co-author of “Shattering the Glass.”
Shackelford added: “Some of the top players, they will not play for a coach unless they can be themselves. It’s that important to them. They’re not going to give up all that.”
This hasn’t always been the case. Until recently, stylistic choices that players like Kelly prize were left up to coaches and managers.
Marsha Lake, UNC’s first All-American women’s basketball player who played in the early 1970s, said that when she played in high school, referees kept nail clippers on hand. If a player’s fingernails were too long, they’d be clipped before the game.
“Now look at the fingernails,” Lake said. “Isn’t that something? So now you can paint them, have them long and stuff.”
Although Lake jokes she’s not sure she could compete in acrylic nails or a wig like many of today’s athletes, she’s stunned by how beauty standards for women’s basketball players have shifted drastically — and for the better.
‘Treading a fine line’
When women play sports, it creates tension between society’s standards and their own desire for self-expression.
“When women play sports in a serious fashion,” Pamela Grundy, a women’s basketball historian and co-author of “Shattering the Glass” said, “they maybe bump into each other every now and then and their hair loses its shape. They’re treading a fine line.”
Throughout history, women in sports have been asked — or even required — to play into ideals of traditional femininity.
In the 1940s and ‘50s, the All-American Girls Professional Baseball League’s rulebook noted that boyish bobs were outlawed, and lipstick was mandated.
Forty years later, in 1996, as the WNBA was first introduced and marketed, “television was the driver,” the league’s first president, Val Ackerman, told The Athletic for a recent story.
Arizona State University sports historian Victoria Jackson said the league was catering to the male gaze. Jackson argues that WNBA owners worried that if their players looked too masculine, sponsors would tune out, and viewers wouldn’t tune in.
“If you look at the packages put out by the WNBA when the league launched, it’s just so cringey, looking at how they thought they should be promoting a women’s professional sports league,” Jackson said.
The WNBA’s “We Got Next” campaign belied that observation. The preseason promotion featured Rebecca Lobo and Sheryl Swoopes exchanging seductive stares. They wore bold lipstick and strutted alongside Lisa Leslie, who was styled in a cropped top.
Grundy said the upkeep of womanly appearances was considered necessary to buck the notion that contact sports are antithetical to femininity.
“It is clear (now) that you can not be ‘glamour girl’ and still be just fine, you don’t feel pressured into, ‘I have to do this or very bad things will happen to me,’ ” Grundy said.
‘There’s more than one way to look sexy’
As UNC coach Courtney Banghart answered questions following North Carolina’s first-round win in the 2023 NCAA Tournament, she placed her hands on the shoulders of Kelly and junior wing Kennedy Todd-Williams.
“They’re different,” she told reporters. “They have their own little things. But there’s an enormous amount of respect they have for one another.”
The glammed-up Kelly juxtaposed with the plainly dressed Todd-Williams is a microcosm of a larger cultural shift in the game.
Players like Caitlin Clark and Paige Bueckers drop buckets with little to no makeup. When Clark hit WWE star John Cena’s “you can’t see me” celebration during the NCAA Tournament, her fingernails were bare. When LSU’s Angel Reese returned the favor in the national title game, her micro-french manicure made headlines.
“One day you can dress androgynously and the next day you can fem it up,” Jackson said. “In part, it’s because we see more of a diversity of expressions in media. A lot of the things we consume have a broader range of people and characters in them.”
Today’s players are raised on social media, in full control of their own appearance. They’ve watched athletes like Colin Kaepernick take a knee. They’ve witnessed player associations organize protests in the WNBA and NBA.
Not only do players feel safer being themselves on the court, but they know they hold the power to demand it.
When Sports Illustrated released its 2022 swimsuit edition featuring several WNBA players in bikinis, WNBA player Courtney Williams took to Twitter to demand a more inclusive approach.
“It would of been raw to see a sleek lil sports bra & some shorts swaggin,” Williams wrote. “There’s more than one way to look sexy, and I hope in the future we can tap into that.”
Self-expression or self-conscious?
Despite apparent progress in both women’s basketball and society at large, there is still pressure for athletes to conform to gender norms.
Kelly said she feels more eyes on her in the NIL era. Granted, that comes with benefits. After her Sweet 16 appearance in the 2022 NCAA Tournament, Naomi Osaka’s skincare brand KINLO reached out to partner with Kelly.
Connecticut Suns guard Nia Clouden doesn’t consider herself as girly as Kelly. She’s more of a sweatsuit person. But, she said, if she was in college right now, she would feel the need to glam up.
Aside from the pressure that NIL puts on women’s players to constantly appear marketable, the stress to conform to gender norms extends further. Because sports and physicality are considered manly, Jackson said many of today’s players may play up their femininity to counteract the muscles.
However, for players like Clouden and Kelly, what they’re doing isn’t about compensation — it’s authentic. And brands are latching on to that swag.
Reese, an All-American and 2023 national champion, is unabashedly herself, a self-described product of the Baltimore streets who trash-talks and plays that way. The “Bayou Barbie” even keeps an extra pair of false eyelashes in her locker room in case she needs a mid-game touch-up. By cultivating her appearance and attitude, Reese has more NIL deals than any other collegiate basketball player, male or female, according to a report by SponsorUnited.
According to that same report, deals for female college basketball players have grown the most out of any group of athletes, even top revenue sports like men’s basketball and football.
Whether it’s Reese’s latest deal — with Mercedes-Benz of Baton Rouge — Kelly’s partnership with jewelry retailer ShopGld, or any other of the myriad new deals announced almost every day, women’s basketball players are making a name for themselves in the NIL space, and they can thank a generational shift in the perception of self-expression.
Some could argue internalized sexism and pressure from the burgeoning marketplace still drive players’ decisions as much as coaches and institutions once did. The difference, though, is who’s running the show.
“I think we’ve seen the growth and expansion of (self-expression),” Kelly said. “People are more like, ‘OK, if I can express myself and showcase what I want to show on the court, I can be an example for the next generation.’ ”