Established 1874.

The Oberlin Review

Established 1874.

The Oberlin Review

Established 1874.

The Oberlin Review

Nonconformity Rises in Collegiate Athletics


When Jared McCain donned his Duke jersey and stepped on court this season, he was focused on just one thing — leading the Blue Devils to victory. Although Duke lost in the Elite Eight to NC State, McCain was a bright spot throughout the season. As a freshman, he led his team in scoring in three of their four March Madness tournament games and could potentially enter the NBA draft for next season. 

For all the recognition that McCain has received for his play, he has quickly become a popular name in college basketball for his physical appearance and what he does off the court. His flashy finishes and impressive handles have brought attention to his painted nails.

McCain began painting his nails during the pandemic and has continued to through the end of his high school and beginning of his college careers. He has also built a large online following on TikTok for his viral dances and his singing of Aimee Carty’s song “2 Days Into College.”

In his first sponsored TikTok for Sally Hansen, a nail polish company that he recently inked a name, image, and likeness deal with, McCain told his 2.7 million followers why he paints his nails. 

“There’s really no crazy reason to it,” McCain said. “It helps me not bite my nails. I went into a salon one time and decided to pick out a color, and I thought it looked nice. I know a lot of people would disagree, a lot of people don’t like it, but I’m just going to be myself and do what I think looks nice.”

McCain has received a lot of hate online for his nails, especially after Duke crashed out of March Madness. Even though many of the comments are positive, there are still negative comments laced throughout the comment section on that video, like “Rooting against Duke. Just cause [sic] of this dude” and “that’s why yall [sic] lost to NC State.” Despite all the negativity that is thrown his way, McCain has publicly remained positive and focused on spreading joy instead of responding to hate.

McCain is one of a few male collegiate athletes who are defying gender norms and embracing nonconformity while being among the best at their sports. Also among this group is football star Caleb Williams, a recent graduate of the University of Southern California who is poised to be the #1 pick at the NFL draft later this month.

Williams has never let himself be put into a box. While he turned into a college football sensation during his two-year stint with USC, winning the coveted Heisman Trophy in his second year, he didn’t let the fame and pressure to be a hypermasculine athlete change his sense of self.

In 2023, Williams did an interview and photoshoot with GQ that highlighted his career in Los Angeles and how his arrival helped turn around the abysmal Trojan team into a powerhouse. In the GQ photoshoot, Williams wore multiple gender-nonconforming outfits, including a cropped mesh jersey and a shirt and skirt outfit that looked like a dress. Like McCain, Williams was quick to be criticized for presenting himself in a way that threatens the hypermasculine stereotype of a successful football player.

Williams recently made an appearance at a March Madness game to cheer on JuJu Watkins and the USC women’s basketball team. He was photographed with pink nails and a pink phone case and was accused of wearing pink lip gloss. Williams has been open about why he wears nail polish in the past but has continued to receive hate for it.

“My mom does nails,” Williams said in an interview with Matt Leinart. “Let’s just start it off there. She’s done it my whole life. It’s just kind of always been around me. Nobody else does it. I just kinda like to do new things.”

After he was subjected to the outpouring of criticism, Williams clapped back on social media and made it clear that he was content and confident with what he wears and how he looks.

Williams’ willingness to be authentically himself has drawn comparisons to another college athlete superstar who will be making her jump and taking her crown to the pros next year. Angel Reese, the self-dubbed “Bayou Barbie,” has been the heart and soul of the national championship-winning LSU women’s basketball team. Reese became a sensation last year when she earned SEC player of the year and led the Tigers to their first national championship with legendary and controversial coach Kim Mulkey.

Reese was suddenly being talked about constantly in the media for multiple reasons, but mainly due to her skills and her trash-talking. For every comment that supported Reese and complimented her rebounding and leadership skills, there was another comment that called her a dirty player for trash-talking her opponents and leaning into the mental side of the sport.

The critiques reached a fever pitch after the championship game that pitted Reese and the Tigers against Caitlin Clark and the Iowa Hawkeyes. During the game, Reese and Clark were regularly jawing with each other and egging each other on. When it was evident that LSU was going to walk away with the championship, Reese made a gesture to Clark that imitated putting a ring on her finger, alluding to the championship rings that the winning team would receive.

Even though both players had been playing a great game while trash-talking, only Reese was vilified for her behavior. People in online comment sections were disparaging Reese by making direct and suggestive comments about her race. Even after Clark and Reese publicly stated that there was no animosity or bad blood between them and that they had the utmost respect for each other, the hate comments toward Reese kept pouring in and have not stopped since.

Clark and Reese faced off again in the March Madness tournament earlier this week in an Elite Eight matchup. Iowa avenged their championship loss last season and won 94–87 in a game that was watched by an average of 12.3 million people. The game broke numerous viewership records and became the most watched women’s basketball game ever. In her postgame interview, Reese broke down and shared what she has been through since her career took off last year.

“I’ve been through so much, I’ve seen so much, I’ve been attacked so many times,” Reese said. “Death threats — I’ve been sexualized; I’ve been threatened, … so many things and I’ve stood strong every single time. … All this has happened since I won the national championship and I said the other day, I haven’t had peace since then and it sucks but I still wouldn’t change anything. I wouldn’t change anything and I would still sit here and say I’m unapologetically me.”

Two days after the game, Reese announced her decision to declare for the WNBA draft in the biggest way she could — in the April 2024 edition of Vogue. In an article that featured photos of Reese posing confidently in bold outfits, she revealed that she is ready for a new challenge and is excited at the prospect of being a rookie again and building herself up.

Much like McCain and Williams, Reese has embraced the pressure and judgment with grace while staying authentically herself. All three athletes have become among the best at their respective sports while remaining true to themselves and paving the way for the next generation of athletes to continue breaking stereotypes.

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