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Coach Dawn Staley Misses Her Shot on Women’s Sports


What can be learned here? When the chance comes to stand up for something more important than one person, or one big day, we all have to be willing and prepared to speak the truths that truly count.

Dawn Staley recently achieved something that nearly every person who has ever played or coached sports can only dream about.

A little over a week ago, Staley led the University of South Carolina women’s basketball team to a second national championship in three seasons, while going undefeated (38-0), and defeating Iowa, a team led by Caitlin Clark, the all-time scoring champion who has taken the country by storm.

Setting the stage for this moment was a women’s NCAA tournament that had garnered unprecedented attention from the media and fans as tens of millions tuned in to watch stars like Clark take on teams like LSU and South Carolina. The tournament had drama, revenge rematches, a coach threatening to sue the Washington Post for an alleged hit piece, an undefeated team, and the sport’s all-time leading scorer.

The championship last Sunday drew an average of 18.9 million viewers, a peak of 24.1 million viewers, and was actually the most watched basketball game (men’s or women’s) in five years.

Turns out it was also the most watched women’s basketball game in history, with a 90 percent jump in viewership over 2023’s championship game, and was the second most watched women’s sporting event of any kind, coming in just behind the 2015 Women’s World Cup final.

Staley’s team took on the biggest moment their sport could offer and crushed it.

Unfortunately, Staley herself mishandled when she was presented with an even bigger moment: She refused to stand up for women and female athletes.

Her opportunity came at a press conference during the Final Four where she was asked by Outkick’s Dan Zaksheske whether transgender athletes, specifically males who identify as females, should be allowed to compete in women’s sports.

No coach wants to take on a controversial question before the biggest game of their life. Coaches notoriously avoid controversy resulting in what has come to be known as “coachspeak.” It was clear that Staley didn’t want to answer the question either, as she hesitated, drank from her cup, and generally stammered to answer.

Perhaps Staley was genuinely taking time to think about her answer and, if so, props to her. And more props to her for actually answering the question when most coaches would have treated it like the “seasick crocodile” in the famous song about the Grinch, not touching it with a 39-and-a-half-foot pole.

That’s where the commendation ends, however.

There Staley sat in front of the microphone, an all-time great player and coach, one of the biggest figures in women’s sports. A giant of women’s athletics stepped up to the plate (mixing our sports metaphors) and instead of taking the opportunity, with all of the world watching, to stand up for women and touting the hard work and accomplishments of real women, Staley launched the world’s worst air-ball:

“I’m under the opinion of, If you’re a woman you should play; if you consider yourself a woman and you want to play sports or vice-versa you should be able to play, that’s my opinion.”

When asked the question again for clarity, she answered with an emphatic, “Yes, yes.”

Staley then fretted that people would “flood her timeline” and “be a distraction on one of the biggest days of our game.”

Staley did, of course, receive criticism for her answer, including from Riley Gaines, the former University of Kentucky swimmer and loudest advocate for women’s sports, who wrote on X, “‘Considering yourself a woman’ is now the threshold. Women have a much bigger hill to climb than I thought…”

Later, Gaines in an interview praised Staley for her accomplishments but criticized her for caving to pressure. “What I think this boils down to is she didn’t have the courage to stand with women. It was a once in a lifetime opportunity for her and she blew it.”

Staley ended up blocking Gaines on X.

Now, this is not me making a judgment of Dawn Staley as a person. Staley has certainly demonstrated many admirable characteristics. For example, following South Carolina’s victory, Staley took a moment to commend Iowa and to even thank Caitlin Clark for her positive impact on women’s sports, saying,

“I have to congratulate Iowa on an incredible season. Also, I want to personally thank Caitlin Clark for lifting up our sport. She carried a heavy load for our sport and it’s just not going to stop here on the collegiate tour, but when she is the No. 1 pick in the WNBA Draft, she’s going to lift up that league up as well. Caitlin Clark, if you’re out there, you are one of the GOATs [greatest of all time] of our game and we appreciate you.”

That’s class.

Staley could have taken cheap shots at Clark like many athletes have or claimed that she was the beneficiary of unfair officiating like others have. She could have claimed that this was just a taste of the comeuppance that many petty WNBA players have claimed Clark will get when she arrives in the league. Instead, she thanked Clark for helping to elevate women’s basketball.

My point is that Staley could have had a greater impact on women’s sports than even Clark.

I, a male with no athletic achievements to speak of, can write about protecting women’s sports. I can inform you of stories of women forced to change alongside men or sexually harassed by males. I can tell you the heartbreaking stories of women and girls losing state titles, victories, or other accomplishments to males. I can let you know that some women are fighting back through lawsuits aimed at keeping men out of women’s sports.

But my voice is but one with little weight behind it.

I am a Revolutionary War-era musket; Dawn Staley is a modern-day aircraft carrier. Staley could have delivered “the shot heard round the world” to stand up for women and give those who feel intimidated into silence the courage and support they need to say no to the erasure and the violation of women.

I don’t know what Dawn Staley’s views on this issue actually are.

If she believes in protecting women and women athletes then this serves as a lesson to all of us that our moment to stand up for what’s right may come when we aren’t prepared for it or when eyes are on us. We have to be willing — and ready — to take that stand.

If Staley actually believes that males should be able to compete against females, then we have another, much bigger problem, and that is that those who should be the strongest voices for women and the competitive integrity of women’s sports are actively supporting males with major biological advantages invading spaces and taking away the dignity and opportunities of the women athletes of tomorrow.

Maybe you are a parent, coach, or athlete who can stand up for women with your words or actions, whether that’s in a daily conversation, organizing efforts to protect women’s sports, or taking a visible stand to refuse to pretend that a male dominating female sports is acceptable.

You need to be willing — and ready.

And then when your big shot comes, don’t miss.

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