Dawn Staley: Playing The Long Game
Why this matters
From her advocacy on racial injustice to equipping new sneakers to those in need, Dawn Staley is making a big impact on youth and college athletes both on and off the basketball court as a 'dream merchant.'
As the rest of the country got swept up in the NCAA Tournament’s March Madness, Dawn Staley remained grounded. While it was anybody’s guess which team would emerge as the 2021 champion of women’s college basketball, she had every reason to be confident. Her team, the University of South Carolina Gamecocks, reached a Top 5 ESPN ranking and won the trophy in 2017, and Staley herself was the 2020 Coach of the Year.
“As you advance into this tournament, it gets harder and harder,” she said, “but we control our own destiny.”
Staley knows how to navigate the road to the winner’s circle. From her days as a young hooper on the streets of Philadelphia, she went on to a dazzling basketball career at the University of Virginia, played overseas and in the Women's National Basketball Association (WNBA), and brought home gold medals from the Atlanta, Sydney, and Athens Olympics. These days she mentors players on the court and off, while building two nonprofits.
“She may be all of 5’6 or 5’7, but she has the heart of a 7-footer,” A’Ja Wilson, who plays for the WNBA’s Las Vegas Aces after becoming national college player of the year under Staley’s tutelage.
Wilson’s generation had an advantage over hers, Staley said, because “if you’ve grown up with professional women’s basketball, you have a tangible thing in front of you to work towards.” The WNBA didn’t launch until 1996, when Staley was 25.
She compared the impact of girls having the WNBA to young political science majors of color having Vice President Kamala Harris to look up to: “They have something to reach for,” Staley said, adding, “Representation matters.”
Beyond the court
In August 2020, Staley was appointed to the Southeastern Conference's Council on Racial Equity and Social Justice. She’ll help establish its strategies to promote racial justice and equality across collegiate athletics.
She also took part in the 12 Inches Over forum, where coaches have connected via videoconference during the pandemic to offer one another moral support, discuss how to keep students safe from COVID-19, and address student concerns in the wake of such high-profile deaths as those of George Floyd and Breonna Taylor at the hands of white police officers.
The needs of the whole athlete are top of mind for Staley.
“I consider myself a mentor for young people,” she said on an episode of Global Sport Matters Live with fellow members of 12 Inches Over, “including the players that I coach. I have to help them navigate through the real world."
At times, she has been criticized for being outspoken about Black Lives Matter protests or the removal of the Confederate flag from South Carolina’s statehouse grounds.
“I do try and stay in my lane,” she said. “But I find a lot of times people aren’t going to come in there; you’ve got to reach out…I’m open to have these uncomfortable conversations if they’re going to lead to systemic change and long-term solutions.”
Where she's coming from
Though she was raised in Philadelphia and took her first coaching job at Temple University, Staley says her roots are in South Carolina. Her mother was born there but got sent north after an altercation with a white shopkeeper that could have led to her being lynched.
The coach grew up with her parents and siblings in a North Philly housing project, where a basketball court was prime real estate and sometimes the big boys shooed her away.
“I was that little girl running around trying to find the next game,” she said. She and her brother cut the bottom out of a crate to use as a makeshift rim, found a piece of plywood for a backboard, and nailed it to an electric pole. She excelled at the game, led her high school to three city championships, and was named USA Today National High School Player of the Year in 1988.
She’s well remembered in Philly. In 2017, the city designated Dawn Staley Lane, a two-block stretch from her childhood home to the Hank Gathers Recreation Center, where she once played. That same year, Columbia, S.C., Mayor Stephen Benjamin renamed a street Dawn Staley Way.
When she graduated college, there wasn’t yet a WNBA, so she launched her professional career abroad, playing in Spain, France, Italy, and Brazil. Returning stateside, she played for the American Basketball League and then had a great run with the WNBA’s Charlotte Sting and Houston Comets.
Now she’s back in Columbia, S.C., the city her mother had to leave. And yet, decades later, Staley looks out on a country that still has not learned to effectively deal with racism.
“There’s no mistaking how George Floyd lost his life,” she said, “and it hit me hard. I felt the need to speak out and not only just speak out [but] to have some solution, and my solution is voting, locally and nationally,” she said during the run-up to the November 2020 elections.
As a leader not only of athletes on her team but also of all young people who would look to her as an example, the Basketball Hall of Famer sees coaching as naturally extending beyond the bounds of the court.
“I do feel like the young people in our world have a huge voice,” she said. She encourages them “to speak up, speak out, and vote.”
During the pandemic, she has held Zoom calls to give young people a place to express their feelings and concerns, while she also cautions them about the dangers of spouting off impulsively on social media.
“They can have a knee-jerk reaction. Sometimes young people don’t understand we’re in the South and we’ve got a predominately Black team...But I will say if you look at our games and the amount of people who come to our games, we probably look a lot different than any sport on our campus in that it is full up everybody, every race and creed. Friendships are made. So we’re doing something a little bit different here. I just want to extend it out to the broader world.”
The coach started the Dawn Staley Foundation in support of underprivileged girls so they could develop leadership, teamwork, and social skills. The organization also bolsters civic pride, builds self-confidence, and offers mentoring. The year Staley started the foundation, a seven-story mural of her was painted on the side of a Philadelphia building that overlooks her old neighborhood. Her work for the foundation earned her an American Red Cross Spectrum Award and a WNBA Entrepreneurial Spirit Award.
In Columbia, she co-founded INNERSOLE, which has provided more than 25,000 pairs of new sneakers to children who are homeless or otherwise in need.
Her Midas touch has made her highly sought after. This summer, she’ll lead the U.S. women’s basketball team to Tokyo as the coach, but she has turned down opportunities to coach in the WNBA and the NBA.
“That’s not where my passion is,” she said. “My passion is being a dream merchant for young people. To safeguard them to the next level.”
The Power of Women & Girls in Sport
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2021 could still stand to be a significant year of growth for women and girls in sport. What long-standing barriers and future opportunities lie ahead?