August 31, 2020 

Dawn Staley speaks on SEC’s new social justice initiative and more

“It’s another pandemic that has been happening for 400 years that we have yet to find the vaccine for."

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Dawn Staley. (photo courtesy of South Carolina Athletics)

“It’s frustrating. It’s tiresome. It’s unnecessary.”

This is how Dawn Staley describes not just the events of this past week; the shooting of Jacob Blake by Kenosha, Wisconsin police, the boycott of a playoff game by the Milwaukee Bucks and the ensuring cancellations of several NBA and WNBA games.

It’s how she describes the myriad of racial injustice events of the past months, which have given rise to protests, increased social unrest and demands for justice.

“I don’t know how many more of these we are all going to have to witness to move past this, but we have to have stamina,” said the legendary Hall of Famer and South Carolina’s women’s basketball coach during a Zoom media call on Friday. She shared her thoughts on the Blake shooting, the recent sports stoppage, the SEC’s new social justice initiative and more.

The spate of shootings of Black citizens this year “is like a disease,” Staley said. “It’s another pandemic that has been happening for 400 years that we have yet to find the vaccine for.  Whatever we want to call what is happening out here in our world — some people see it as racism, some see it as a need to comply, some see it as a number of things — I see it as wrong. No matter how you look at it, It’s wrong.” 

Staley supported the two-day work stoppage in the NBA and WNBA as players, coaches, owners and more discussed ways to bring about permanent change in society’s treatment of its Black citizens.

“Our country is divided. Incredibly divided. It’s drastic things that are happening in the world and for anything to change it has to be an equal force of drastic (occurring),” Staley said.

“I’ve enjoyed watching a lot of NBA games and definitely enjoy seeing WNBA games almost every night. It’s become part of my routine. Sports have become an escape for me. Then this happen — you know, Jacob Blake — and it jolts you back.

“I hope I don’t get to a place where I’m numb. When you’re numb you don’t feel, you don’t talk you don’t join in, you don’t help and you become a part of the problem.”

Staley praised the role the WNBA has taken in social justice reform and spoke on the growing synergy between both leagues in fighting injustices.

“The WNBA has been incredible. Their voice is getting stronger. They’ve been leaders for social justice for a very long time. We just have a better sense of organization and knowing how to go about doing it and we lean on each other,” she said.

“Nneka (Ogwumike) has been tremendous in her organization of getting players to come together and talk. They just look so unified and it’s not surprising to hear that some of the players in the NBA are leaning on our leaders in the WNBA to see which way to go and I do think we’ll need them.”

Dawn Staley. (photo courtesy of South Carolina Athletics)

The NBA players are “the millionaires, the ones that can get into some rooms hat women can’t and hopefully change some things and to have that trickle-down effect to the WNBA.

Staley said she understands the players’ reasons for returning to play but added that she hopes no one loses sight of why they are doing it.

“People are losing their lives. People are getting shot, in the back in front of their three kids. I’m thinking about the three boys, his sons, what do we say to them?” she asked. “This is generational, a cycle of racism. There is no way about it.”

She also took issue with the delving into Blake’s past seemingly as a means to discredit him as an individual and justify the shooting that reportedly left him paralyzed from the waist down.

“If we’re going to look at somebody’s past let’s look at everybody’s past; from the top to the bottom,” she said. “And if we’re going to judge somebody on their past in that moment, which he could have lost his life…this world, our country is divided. You can’t look at one person’s past and not look at the other person’s past and come up with the same type of reactions.”

Since South Carolina and many other SEC schools are back in session, Staley has been in contact with her team over the Blake shooting and other racial incidents from the summer through their team text thread, but has been careful to keep her personal thoughts to herself. The team was scheduled to have a team Zoom Friday night to talk about the latest incident.

“I thought it’d be a great idea to have them just talk about it and give them that space then we’ll go from there. I’ll be there to help, but I don’t want them to take on my views,” she said. “My views are my views. I’ve lived for 50 years, they’ve lived for half of that. They are going to have to feel some of these things for themselves and navigate how they feel; we just have to give them the space.”

Asked how she would feel if something ever caused her team to not want to take the floor, Staley had this to say: “It wouldn’t surprise me. If they decided that this was something they want to flex, and if we get to that point, we’ll we’d have to have some discussions.

“Hopefully we’ll have some discussions prior to that, prior to it getting to that point and if it ever got to that point, what can I do? I’m not going to stand in their way.”

Staley’s deep connection with student-athletes is well-documented. At South Carolina she’s mentored and coaches hundreds of girls, many of whom have gone on to have successful careers in the WNBA and beyond. Her success with young people will come in handy for her appointment to the SEC’s new Council on Racial Equity and Social Justice, a league-wide body consisting of a diverse group of student-athletes, administrators, coaches, an SEC staff.

The Council will identify resources, outline strategies and assist with implementation of efforts to help promote racial equity and social justice, while also fostering diversity, helping overcome racism and pursuing non-discrimination in intercollegiate athletics.

Staley said her role on the Council — which will meet for the first time in early September — is one that she will “fully embrace. I’m looking forward to the dialogue. I do believe the SEC prides it self on being the leader in all things so I’m hoping social justice is one of the things the commissioner prides himself on changing and being a model for conferences all over the  country.”

Members of the Council include individuals from within the Conference’s existing student-athlete engagement program — a multi-faceted effort involving more than 60 student leaders in football, men’s basketball, women’s basketball and all other SEC sponsored sports. Racial equity and social justice will be required discussions during all student-athlete leadership and advisory council meetings, while those groups’ chairs, vice chairs and/or other identified leaders will participate in Council meetings.

In addition, the Council will include administrative leaders from each campus and head coaches from each SEC sport who will regularly meet with SEC student-athletes to better understand and respond to their questions and concerns.

“An important movement has been ignited around the equitable treatment of all underrepresented minorities, and the SEC is determined to be a leader in the pursuit of meaningful and lasting change,” said SEC Commissioner Greg Sankey. “With the Council as our guide, we will develop an action agenda built on the foundation that all are created equal and ensure this truth echoes across our stadiums, our arenas, our campuses, our communities, our states and our nation.”

The Council will initially focus on the following five strategic areas:

  • Increasing Access and Representation for Underrepresented Minorities

  • Providing Enhanced Support for Underrepresented Minorities

  • Improving Education on Racial and Social Issues for All Stakeholders

  • Deepening Commitments to Local Communities

  • Raising Awareness of Racial Inequity and Social Injustice

For Staley, the lone voice from women’s basketball on the council, the role will not just be ceremonial. She’ll make sure of it.

“I know I’m not going to be used as just a name,” she said. “I’m going to voice some things I feel need to change all across our league. If we change our league, I do think other conferences will follow.”

Written by Dorothy J. Gentry

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