Perfecting their persona: style in a changing basketball landscape

By Shelby Swanson

While her teammates are dressed in practice pinnies and baggy hoodies, UNC junior guard Deja Kelly dons a skin-tight Carolina blue shirt as she laces up for a shootaround at the NCAA Tournament. Her hair is slicked back and her edges are laid in her signature “D-I do.” 

She’s rocking pink acrylic nails and eyelash extensions. While she isn’t wearing any foundation or concealer — she’s not a big fan of heavy makeup during games — her eyebrows are plucked to perfection, and the gloss on her lips catches the fluorescent overhead lights.

Cultivating a “girly” image doesn’t stop the ACC first-team honoree from being a stone-cold killer on the court. The hair, nails, lashes and 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 ability for players to craft a signature look is increasingly important, both culturally and economically. 

UNC guard Deja Kelly poses wearing her Carolina Blue jersey with a compression sleeve of the same color on her left leg.
UNC guard Deja Kelly led the Tar Heels in scoring in the 2022-23 season, averaging 16.5 points per game in her junior campaign. She has also made a name for herself for her signature look both on and off the court.

“This generation, they’re very used to self-expression,” sports historian Susan Shackelford said. “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, the stylistic choices that players like Kelly prize were left up to coaches and managers.

“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.’” 

‘Treading a fine line’

When women play sports, it creates tension.

The history of female athletics — as shown by the All-American Girls Professional Baseball League in the 1940s and 1950s —  didn’t just put pressure on players to adhere to traditional femininity. It was required. In the AAGPBL rulebook, boyish bobs were outlawed and lipstick was mandated.

Fast-forward 40-odd years. It’s 1996. The WNBA is in its infancy and, as the league’s first president Val Ackerman told The Athletic, “Television was the driver.” 

Arizona State University sports historian Victoria Jackson said the league was catering to the male gaze. 

“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.

Houston Comets teammates Rebecca Lobo and Sheryl Swoopes talk strategy midway through a game in 2002.
Rebecca Lobo (left) and Sheryl Swoopes discuss strategy during a game in 2002, the only season where they played together on the Houston Comets. The pair were cornerstones in the WNBA’s “We Got Next” campaign heading into their respective rookie seasons.

The WNBA’s “We Got Next” campaign is a perfect example. A video launching the initiative features Rebecca Lobo and Sheryl Swoopes exchanging seductive stares. They wear bold lipstick and strut alongside Lisa Leslie, who is styled in a crop top.  

Per Jackson, women’s basketball has historically regulated player self-expression. WNBA owners worried that if their players looked too masculine, sponsors would tune out and viewers wouldn’t tune in. 

Pamela Grundy, a women’s basketball historian and co-author of “Shattering the Glass,” said public opinion often saw contact sports as antithetical to femininity. 

“When women have stopped to play sports in a serious fashion — you know, competitive,” she said, “they maybe bump into each other every now and then and their hair loses their shape. They’re treading a fine line.”

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 said. “They have their own little — look at these two — 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.

Junior guards Kennedy Todd-Williams poses for a selfie taken by Deja Kelly at an ACC Tipoff Media Day event in 2022.
Junior guard Kennedy Todd-Williams (left) and junior guard Deja Kelly (right) pose for a photo at the 2022 ACC Tipoff Media Day in Charlotte, N.C. The pair were consistent starters for the UNC women’s basketball team, who ended their season in a narrow 69-71 loss to Ohio State in the first round of the 2023 NCAA Tournament.

“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 were 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 WNBA players in bikinis, Chicago Sky guard Courtney Williams took to Twitter to demand a more inclusive approach to style. 

“It would have 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-consciousness?

Despite the progress made in women’s basketball and American culture, there is still pressure for athletes to conform to gender norms.

Kelly said she feels more eyes on her in the wake of rule changes that allowed college athletes to profit from the use of their name, image and likeness. 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, if she was in college today, she said she would feel the need to glam up.  

Aside from the pressure that NIL puts on women in college sports to constantly appear marketable, the stress to conform to gender norms extends further than that. Because sports and physicality are considered manly, Jackson said many of today’s players may play up their femininity to counteract their muscles. 

However, to players like Clouden and Kelly, what they’re doing isn’t compensation — it’s authentic. And now brands are latching on to that swag. 

Wearing a purple and gold jersey and purple headband, LSU forward Angel Reese taps her right ring finger.
LSU forward Angel Reese taps her ring finger at Iowa’s Caitilin Clark during the NCAA women’s championship basketball game. Clark similarly mocked Reese earlier in the tournament, but Reese still received criticism for the act. LSU went on to win the championship game 102-85.

Angel Reese, an All-American and 2023 national champion, is unabashedly herself — a self-described product of the Baltimore streets who trash-talks and plays with serious confidence. The ‘Bayou Barbie’ even keeps an extra pair of false eyelashes in the 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 SponsorUnited’s 2022-2023 NIL marketing partnerships report, deals for female college hoopers have grown the most out of any group of athletes, even high-revenue sports like men’s basketball and football. 

Maybe some players are curating their appearance due to internalized sexism or pressure from the market. Maybe they’re truly embracing self-expression. 

Or maybe it doesn’t matter either way. 

Regardless of their intent, the power is now in the hands of the players — the performers — to perfect their own persona.

Edited by Preston Fore, Allie Kelly and Guillermo Molero.

‘Forever chemicals’ in Fayetteville water sparks renewed concern

By Taylor Barnhill

About three years ago, someone knocked on Theresa Striblin’s door and asked to test her water. 

Striblin, who lives just outside of Fort Bragg in Fayetteville, North Carolina, assumed this testing was part of regular maintenance, so she let them inside. And, thankfully, her water tested clean. 

But Striblin — like so many others in her community — wasn’t initially told why this testing was happening, nor about the toxic chemicals that had so quickly inundated her community. It was much later, she said, when residents read news articles that brought the contamination to light.

“It was concerning,” she said. “I mean, you bathe in the water. You cook with it.”

Chemours LLC, a chemical manufacturer with a plant in Fayetteville, has faced several legal battles in the last six years related to releasing various chemicals from its Fayetteville Works plant.

Researchers are still uncovering the extent of toxic pollution in Fayetteville and beyond, stretching at least as far as Wilmington, N.C. Yet, Chemours’ Fayetteville Works facility doesn’t want to slow production; instead, in an air permit application from October 2022, they outlined plans to expand. 

The chemicals of concern are per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances, otherwise known as PFAS. They are used to manufacture anything from nonstick cookware and rain jackets to cosmetics and cleaning products — and they’re known to stick around.

PFAS decompose slowly, earning the moniker of ‘forever chemicals.’ Because of this, environmental groups are concerned about how they can build up in the bodies of humans and animals over time. 

Their persistence also means they can travel. So far, researchers have measured PFAS in every continent except Antarctica, most recently discovering them in the blood of polar bears.

Scientists still aren’t exactly sure about the extent of PFAS’ effects on human health. However, they have been linked to a host of problems: reproductive issues, developmental delays, various cancers and immune harm all correlate with high levels of PFAS exposure, according to the Environmental Protection Agency.

A 2017 article by the Wilmington Star-News put PFAS in the public eye. The piece reported that GenX, a form of PFAS manufactured by Fayetteville Works, had contaminated over 300,000 people’s drinking water in the Cape Fear Region since local municipalities could not filter it out. 

But pollutants weren’t limited to the river. As PFAS were released into the air surrounding the facility, they contaminated rainwater — which later polluted rivers and seeped into wells all across the state’s southeast.

A string of legal actions followed this discovery, culminating in a November 2018 Consent Order signed by the Southern Environmental Law Center, the North Carolina Department of Environmental Quality and Chemours LLC. The order required that Fayetteville Works adopt strict control measures to prevent PFAS from entering the environment.

And, on paper, the order has been followed. 

Chemours boasts that PFAS emissions in released air and water have gone down by over 99%. The company reports that thermal air filters, installed in December 2019, are close to completely effective. 

Still, this figure is somewhat ambiguous. EPA air testing isn’t yet “subject to the Federal rulemaking process,” according to its website — and independent researchers are discovering new kinds of PFAS in the area. 

 A recent study led by postdoctoral researcher Jiaqi Zhou at UNC-Chapel Hill’s Gillings School of Global Public Health collected air samples near Fayetteville Works. It spanned six months, from September 2019 to March 2020.  

What the team discovered, Zhou said, was that overall airborne PFAS concentrations in the space around Chemours’ facility were much higher on average than quantities measured in other parts of North Carolina. This indicated that the facility was a likely source for such contamination, especially for newly-discovered types of PFAS. 

Zhou’s study was one of the first to measure both emerging and legacy PFAS. Emerging PFAS, she said, are those which could not be measured before, as technology was not yet advanced enough — an implication that could complicate control and reporting measures for toxic substances.

Zhou’s team kept seeing PFAS at high levels even after thermal filters were installed — likely because the factory’s testing couldn’t detect every type of PFAS it released. And, as the fitting ‘forever chemical’ name implies, any pollution pumped out before December 2019 likely still lingers in the community’s atmosphere.

“The interesting point is that what we found in the air actually matches what was found in the (Cape Fear) River,” Zhou said — a further indicator that the area’s air pollution resulted from Chemours’ manufacturing.  

Jean Zhuang, a staff attorney at the Southern Environmental Law Center, said that agencies are still in the process of discovering the extent of air pollution, as it is often hard to measure. Zhuang has worked to litigate action against PFAS-polluting facilities since 2017.

“Chemours has to keep testing further and further out from their facility as long as they’re continuing to find contamination,” she said. “And they just haven’t found the end of it.”

Why do they want to grow? 

Zhuang said a large concern of members of the SELC is that Fayetteville Works is not only continuing to manufacture PFAS — it’s that they want to get bigger. 

Chemours’ Fayetteville Works facility applied for an expansion permit last year. The expansion would allow increased production of fluoropolymer monomers — a chemical building block for PFAS-related substances. 

 Though fluoropolymers and known-harmful PFAS are not identical, they have similar structures; like PFAS, they are a very persistent ‘forever chemical.’ And, as recent research explains, their use and production correlate with exposure to harmful PFAS.  

Chemours’ permit application says that emissions increases will be negligible. Activists and residents, however, are not satisfied.

“(Fayetteville Works) shouldn’t be allowed to expand when they’ve contaminated probably close to 100 square miles of southeastern North Carolina with PFAS,” Zhuang said. “And that contamination is only continuing. They still haven’t installed alternative drinking water supplies for everybody.” 

Zhuang said that the SELC’s focus is to encourage local agencies to more heavily impose the guidelines in the federal Clean Water Act, which has not, she said, been enforced broadly with relation to PFAS.  

“Our goal throughout the whole region is to make sure that these chemicals get controlled and that they don’t continue to expose our communities to toxic contamination,” she said.  

Where are we now?  

For many North Carolinians, including Striblin, uncertainty about safety prevails.  

“(Water testing) was like three years ago,” Striblin said. “We don’t know what it is now.”

Over 1,000 residents of Pender County, down the Cape Fear River from the Chemours facility, qualify for — and have not yet received — alternative water sources due to contamination in their own wells. Many residents of Fayetteville are still reliant on bottled water to meet their needs. 

Yet, testing measures for wells across the state only measure 12 types of PFAS, less than the 22 types detected by Zhou’s team and far short of the 54 distinct types found in the Cape Fear River so far.

And despite the banner message on Chemours’ Fayetteville Works website, which reiterates a commitment “to taking a leadership role in environmental stewardship,” activists are not persuaded. Fayetteville Works’ permit application remains incomplete.

“This company really doesn’t understand what they’ve done to this community,” Zhuang said. 

Edited by Preston Fore and Lauren Fichten