The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Dawn Staley, another title in sight, won’t stop speaking out: ‘I can’t not do it’

Dawn Staley shouts at players during a game last year. (Sean Rayford/AP)
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At practice one afternoon in December, the South Carolina women’s basketball players spread out on a carpeted space away from the court. The university president wanted to talk to them.

Before games this season, most of the players, wanting to bring attention to systemic racism, had been sitting during the national anthem. Even with few fans in the arena, the act hadn’t gone unnoticed: There were boos, threats of boycott on Twitter and a Facebook rant describing the players as “unappreciative b----es” and suggesting their head coach be imprisoned as an American traitor.

But in Columbia, S.C., the team’s coach, Dawn Staley, will sooner get a court named after her than face serious blowback. Since her arrival in 2008, she has built a women’s basketball dynasty on Southern football turf, making nine straight NCAA tournament appearances, capturing six conference tournament championships and winning the national title in 2017. On Sunday, her team opens the tournament as a No. 1 seed for the fifth time in the past eight years.

After winning that 2017 title, the state’s second-largest newspaper named Staley the most powerful person in South Carolina sports, ahead of Clemson football coach Dabo Swinney. The Republican governor once demanded an apology from a rival athletic director who criticized Staley after a rowdy game at Columbia’s Colonial Life Arena. A South Carolina lawmaker recently introduced a bill to name that court after her.

So when her players filled the socially distant chairs that afternoon, they could safely assume their coach would have their backs. Still, this was South Carolina, where sitting for the anthem, as one Gamecocks alum told Staley in an email, is viewed by many as “despicable.”

The university president, Robert Caslen, is a retired Army lieutenant general. He told the players how he had sworn to defend the Constitution and supported their right for free speech, according to interviews with Caslen, Staley and players. He also mentioned how soldiers had died in his arms. He didn’t tell them what to do, but his background made it clear what he does. He stands for the anthem.

Then, Staley, sitting beside her team, found herself doing what she had done all season. She began to speak up.

The Book of Staley

She had come home with scratched legs after battling all day with the boys. Staley, the smallest thing around the Raymond Rosen housing project in north Philadelphia, kept her mother worried but held her own on the basketball court. Near 23rd and Diamond streets, the intersection where she used to shoot jumpers at a crate fastened to a light pole, the sign now reads “Dawn Staley Lane.”

Staley brought her north Philly toughness and natural leadership to the University of Virginia. In the final seconds of overtime in the 1990 NCAA East Region final, Coach Debbie Ryan called a play, but Staley raised another idea. Virginia ran Staley’s play, and she drilled the midrange jumper, clinching the team’s first trip to the Final Four.

The next year, a teenage girl stood on the top ledge of a Charlottesville parking garage, threatening to jump. The only person who could talk her down was her hero, Staley.

Staley started her coaching career in her hometown, at Temple University, but she moved in 2008 to South Carolina, where her mom was born and raised. Estelle Staley was a nice, churchgoing lady, Staley says, but one whose eyes you wouldn’t want to meet if you stole her parking spot at the mall.

“Oh, she ain’t letting them get away with it,” Staley says, laughing at the memory. “No, no, no! That window’s coming down.”

Staley is her mother’s daughter in that way. In her early days in Columbia, she went to the same local pizza place almost every day, tweeting love letters to her favorite pies. One day she and her family sat at an outdoor table. No one came to serve them, and the family felt mistreated. Miss Estelle wasn’t having it. They left.

Though her mother died in 2017, Staley hasn’t returned since. In the Book of Staley, right is right, and wrong is wrong.

“I grew up in a house like that,” she says. “There’s really no gray area.”

Queen of the ‘G-Hive’

In Columbia, Staley inherited a program that hadn’t made the NCAA tournament in five years and averaged only 1,802 fans per game the season before she arrived. After her first home loss, as fans headed for the exits inside the nearly-empty gym, Staley searched for a microphone.

She urged everyone to stop walking. She thanked them for their loyalty and made them a promise: If you stick with me, you won’t see many more nights like this.

Twelve years later, they see her around campus, with a green tea-lemonade in hand, that Starbucks plastic stopper hanging from her mouth. Staley, 50, attends everything from softball games to welcome events for first-year Gamecocks. Students admire her. The bravest approach in awe and introduce themselves.

“Like she was Beyoncé,” says A’ja Wilson, the most decorated athlete in school history, who now plays for the WNBA’s Las Vegas Aces.

Beyond campus, Staley has built a fiercely devoted following. In the six seasons before the pandemic, the Gamecocks led NCAA women’s basketball in attendance, averaging 12,185 fans during the 2019-20 season. Beyoncé has her Beyhive; Staley calls their superfans the “G-Hive.” After the title in 2017, fans got into a bidding war for the right to have the special edition, state-issued Gamecocks license plate, “WB 33” (the team went 33-4 that season). The queen of this hive rolls around in a matte black Mercedes-Benz SUV nicknamed “Michelle” after the former first lady, and her license plate reads, “WB 1.”

“When she came to the program, you could pick wherever you wanted to sit in the arena,” says Judi Gatson, a veteran newscaster in Columbia and avowed G-Hive member. “[Now] tickets to her program are the hottest ticket in the state.”

She has accomplished this with unapologetic Blackness at a school, in a state, that in many ways clings to its Whiteness. The Gamecocks won their 2017 title with an all-Black roster; only two years before, the Confederate battle flag still flew on the grounds of the South Carolina State House a few blocks away. The university erected a golden statue of Wilson outside the arena. But on this same campus, the wellness and fitness center named after Strom Thurmond, a segregationist politician, remains.

Last summer, when a group of current and former athletes called a news conference in front of the fitness center, demanding a name change, Staley showed up to speak.

She’s the head ball coach in South Carolina,” says Kayin Jones, executive director of Black Lives Matter South Carolina. “Being an African-American woman and really excelling in her craft … taking them to national prominence, she’s done a hell of a job. And in doing so, it has allowed her voice to be that much louder. Her bullhorn, she can turn the volume up on it.”

‘I can’t not’

In May, Staley couldn’t keep up with her thumbs. Days after watching George Floyd die under the knee of a Minneapolis police officer, her fingers pecked out her raw response, typos and all.

The tweet started Staley toward becoming one of the state’s most outspoken advocates for racial justice. She wrote an essay in the voice of a fed-up Black woman. She hopped on Zoom calls with local reporters, knowing she was the only prominent Black coach at South Carolina to speak about Jacob Blake, the Black man shot seven times in the back by a police officer in Kenosha, Wis.

“Activism has always been here,” U.S. Rep. James E. Clyburn (D-S.C.) says of Columbia, the state capital. “It just hasn’t been very well known.” Staley, he says, is “reflective of that kind of attitude that’s been in Columbia for a long, long time.”

Her Twitter account was her biggest pulpit, and she has made a habit of going back at people, even if they identify themselves as Gamecocks fans. When a disgruntled fan claimed to be done with Staley after her support of Blake, she vowed to be herself: “Take it. Leave it.” It’s a strange sight, an SEC coach urging someone to get off her timeline, but Staley does it routinely. She delights in leaving trolls “at the altar,” as she calls it.

“I say what’s on my mind,” Staley says. “I can’t not do it. I can’t not post it because I don’t want to live with thinking that I should’ve said something and I didn’t.”

Staley knows she has upset some fans with her tweets and her takes on race in America. She knew there would be backlash, especially when all nine Black women on the team decided before the season to stage a silent protest.

The Gamecocks coaches, including Staley, and one White player typically stand for the anthem. The other White player, sophomore Olivia Thompson, started the season sitting with her teammates. Then, before the Dec. 3 game against North Carolina State, Thompson told Staley that sitting didn’t send a strong enough message for her. She wanted to take a knee.

“ ‘They’re going to tear her ass up.’ That’s what I said to myself,” Staley recalls. So before the anthem played, Staley walked over to Thompson, placed her right hand over her player’s shoulder and took a knee beside her.

“A big thing with her is how she stands up for the people she cares about and the things she cares about,” Thompson says. “I feel like there’s nothing she wouldn’t do for us as players.”

Soon after that game, Caslen met with the team. He’s a fan of Staley — “She’s a national icon, and everybody loves her. When I get around her, I get a little nervous,” Caslen says — but he wanted to talk with her players about sitting for the anthem.

He maintained that their method wasn’t working with the people who needed to hear their message. Staley encouraged them to listen, but she also encouraged them to speak their minds, and they did.

After Caslen left, Staley addressed her team. She told them she wanted them to know the other side of the argument — to try to understand where people who shared Caslen’s views were coming from. She told them to take it all in.

But, like Caslen, she never told the players who had chosen to sit what to do. Before the next game, and every game since, they sat.

Correction: An earlier version of the article said the Confederate flag flew over the South Carolina State House two years before the women’s basketball team won the national title. The flag was moved from the capitol dome to the statehouse grounds in 2000, and removed from the grounds entirely in 2015.

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