Dawn Staley on Race, Equality and Advocating for Change

Dawn Staley on Race, Equality and Advocating for Change
University of South Carolina women's basketball coach Dawn Staley spoke at Duke on November 1, 2022. (John West/Trinity Communications)

As the youngest of five children, it’s safe to say that Dawn Staley grew up in a competitive environment. The three-time Olympic gold medalist, WNBA player and current head coach of the University of South Carolina women’s basketball team was raised in the north Philadelphia projects and has brought that competitiveness to everything she’s been a part of.

With Staley at the helm of the program, the Gamecocks have won five SEC regular season championships, six SEC tournament titles, three Final Fours, two NCAA National Championships, seven Sweet 16 appearances, five SEC player of the year awards and five SEC freshman of the year awards. Staley has also been named SEC coach of the year five times.

On Thursday night, at the most recent offering from Black in Blue: The Duke Sports & Race Project, Chair of Gender, Sexuality & Feminist Studies Jennifer Nash spoke with Staley about race in coaching, coaching philosophies and Brittney Griner.

As a friend of Griner — the WNBA and Team USA player recently sentenced to nine years in Russian prison for possession of prescribed medical cannabis while playing internationally — Staley uses her voice to advocate for Griner’s release every chance she gets.

“I think about her, her family, her wife, her teammates every day,” Staley said. She hopes that keeping Griner at the front of people’s minds will raise her platform and, in turn, help others come home as well.

Two women speaking in chairs
Jennifer C. Nash (right) interviewed Staley at the Black in Blue event. (John West/Trinity Communications)

Staley has also been a passionate proponent of uplifting other Black coaches. She said that institutions need to start from how hiring decisions are made and who makes them.

“The demographics of the decision makers have to change,” said Staley. “Until presidents of universities are more diverse, along with athletic departments, athletic directors, senior staff. You have to be intentional when it comes to who you hire.”

Along with that comes Staley’s fight for equal pay, which she’s been participating in since she started as a coach at South Carolina.

Staley’s record speaks for itself: her women’s program has had more success than the men’s, yet she was making less than the men’s coach.

She decided to speak up.

“I was willing to risk it all, because I knew it was the right thing to do,” said Staley. “Not just for myself, but hopefully for other women in this situation to know what they’re worth and what they deserve.”

The result? Staley’s contract will increase her salary by $100,000 each year until she reaches $3.5 million at the end of the seven-year agreement. The incoming USC men’s coach recently signed a five-year, $2.2 million contract.

Above all, it’s easy to see the passion Staley has for the game and for the players she coaches. She spoke at length about how she prepares her players for not only the games they play, but the challenges they’ll face off the court.

“We [the coaching staff] are very intentional about meeting our players where they are when it comes to mental health,” said Staley. “If someone's having a bad week, we check in on them.”

Staley and her team stay in touch with both athletes and their families to make sure they’re taking care of their mental as well as physical health.

Staley’s goal is to set her athletes up for success on every level. She talked about a player who had been slighted by the ESPY awards, and how she has no problem stepping in to take on battles for her players.

“By nature, I’m a life point guard,” said Staley. “Being a servant to the game and being a servant for my team comes naturally to me. Whenever I can help my people, I’m going to go the extra mile to do that.”