Dawn Staley is a whirlwind.
I turned on my digital video recorder after the South Carolina Gamecocks defeated UConn in the national title game a year ago. On a Sunday night in Minneapolis, after the Gamecocks coach cut down the nets, she joined the postgame panel. She pitched the greatness of her players and the sport in general.
The following morning, I received an email with a tagline fit for a queen – “We Are The Champions, My Friend.” Staley and the team were scheduled to meet with fans, or FAMS, that afternoon. I had to see her energy for myself. As the team rushed back to Columbia, South Carolina, to celebrate the title, I did the same. I watched her shake hands with hundreds of people and take countless photos. Her energy never waned, and she practically had to be pulled away from fans for an urgent media interview. A tour de force.
Staley represents the community of women’s college basketball, specifically, the legwork it takes to build such a landscape.
As a member of the 1996 U.S. women’s basketball team, Staley’s role as an ambassador to the game makes sense. The sacrifices and successes of that team are a remarkable flash point that captures the power and conviction of the sport in influence and social justice. The WNBA and female basketball players have been standard-bearers, whether it’s four Minnesota Lynx players wearing Black Lives Matter shirts to protest the police killings of Alton Sterling and Philando Castile, or Atlanta Dream players responding to former co-owner and Sen. Kelly Loeffler’s rebuke of Black Lives Matter with a two-word response: “Vote Warnock.” Democratic candidate the Rev. Raphael Warnock became a household name, then he became Georgia’s first Black senator.
As a native South Carolinian, I’m only an hour’s drive away from Columbia, so I’ve had a bird’s-eye view of the Gamecocks’ overwhelming success. I’ve watched the team become representative of something more than basketball because of its coach, her stances, her standards. Staley has been rightly compared to another larger-than-life coach, John Thompson Jr. of Georgetown. While the team won its first 36 games, and 42 consecutive games overall, the pressure felt different.
Mothers always know. My mom’s halftime calls became a ritual. Why aren’t they winning by more points? They’ll be fine, I assured her throughout the season. Watch out for Iowa, she insisted.
There’s a picture in my mind that resonates from that heartbreaking Final Four game – the slow walk-off by Brea Beal. Earlier in the season, she spoke about her focus on mental health, and fans knew that her versatility was invaluable. All season long, she made timely shots, defended relentlessly and sacrificed for the good of the team. That changed for some folks after she walked off the court, fouling out in the closing seconds of South Carolina’s 77-73 loss to Iowa and superstar guard Caitlin Clark.
“Casual” is a derisive term used to describe people who aren’t basketball enthusiasts, but there was nothing relaxed about the response to Beal’s appearance after the loss. Folks wondered aloud about her lengthy eyelashes, and she presciently spoke on the topic a few months before in response to criticism of Tennessee forward Tamari Key.
“Seeing those comments kind of made my heart drop, because nobody deserves to have to deal with that,” Beal said in February. “Seeing that made my heart hurt, because I’ve seen those comments for myself and my teammates or people I’m friends with in the basketball community. It’s not a good feeling to have to deal with that, and it kind of weighs heavy on your mind, people blaming how I’m playing on my appearance. For some people, it starts to mess with them.”
Last week, Beal responded to more unwarranted criticism on social media, where she wondered aloud why “the internet targets the most unproblematic people.” My response to the commentary about her lashes and whether she was an “over hyped” player was the same.
Keep Brea Beal’s name out ya mouth.
I’m sick of the disrespect of women’s basketball players. The comment sections for any story involving Phoenix Mercury center Brittney Griner are unforgivable, and what I’ve come to realize is that the community of women’s basketball isn’t just tight-knit in the name of sisterhood, but survival.
Former players and coaches quickly came to Beal’s defense. Old Dominion coach Delisha Milton-Jones, who played in the WNBA for 17 years and won two Olympic gold medals, honed in on Beal’s defensive prowess. “Trust and believe you are worthy of the opportunity,” she tweeted. “When you play and start to lock their favorite player up, get crucial stops, disrupt many plays and supply genuine energy to ur squad…They’ll Love You!”
Staley, who previously decried her team’s portrayal as “bar fighters,” wasted no time in addressing criticism of her former player.
“These folks call themselves writers of our sport….self proclaimed writers is about right,” she tweeted. We all know they are the wolves in sheep clothing.”
There is a burden of responsibility in being a Gamecock these days. Because Staley represents social awareness, women’s rights and unrepentant Blackness, players will bear the ire of her political opponents. What becomes particularly painful is when antiquated perspectives of how a woman should look irresponsibly trickle into assessments of on-court performance.
This is particularly perilous in a league with limited seating such as the WNBA. The sisterhood and maternal nature of the league belies this cruel reality. Two former Gamecocks, Beal and guard Destanni Henderson, were caught up in late preseason cuts.
Quite naturally, Staley provided an affirming word to both players. “You know you both belong. Let’s keep getting in the lab and work,” she tweeted. “I know your representatives are working to get you on another team’s roster. Heads high champs!”
This is a critical time for women’s basketball, and it comes in the wake of the NCAA’s most successful Final Four in March. A sold-out preseason game just last week in Toronto indicates the potential for growing the game.
The media and fans should follow suit – not with our antiquated perspectives of how women should play basketball and conduct themselves, but in appreciation of the conscience and conviction of powerful women.