Staley's Gamecocks won the Southeastern Conference this season on their way to the Final Four of the NCAA tournament | twitter.com/GamecockWBB

Do Not Look Away

 You want Dawn Staley in your corner. As the coach of the University of South Carolina women’s basketball team, she’s one of the best in the country. She makes her players some of the best too. And Clemson football aside, she’s won more titles than your favorite in-state team. She’s certainly won more Olympic gold medals.

Dawn Staley is fearless. But not out of stubbornness or blissful ignorance. She’s tough because she’s been there. As a competitor, she wants to win, but she will be the first to tell you that losing is part of the game.

Luckily for South Carolina, the state’s best basketball coach is also the most outspoken on important issues facing its residents. Win or lose, Staley takes stances and encourages her players to do the same. It’s in her DNA to stand up and speak out, amplified by the stage she’s on.

Staley has always been passionate. But, the tragedies and turbulence of our time have sharpened her instincts to see how she can be part of difficult national discussions around racism, political division and equality.

“I don’t really want to take on all the things I take on with social injustice, but my heart won’t let me shut up,” she told The Athletic last month.

As Staley’s Gamecocks marched toward their third Final Four in six seasons, Staley seized the moment. Appealing to the NCAA president by name, Staley called out “glaring deficiencies” between the men’s and women’s tournaments after a year defined by division.

“What we now know is that the NCAA’s season-long messaging about ‘togetherness’ and ‘equality’ was about convenience and a soundbite for the moment created after the murder of George Floyd,” Staley wrote on Instagram on March 19.

Staley’s actions are rarely about her, but she knows she stands on the shoulders of those who came before her. On March 30, Staley cut down the net before the Final Four wearing a T-shirt bearing the image of Georgetown Coach John Thompson, the first African-American coach to win the national title. She knows how hard achieving success can be because she’s lived it.

“I’m speaking from my perspective as a Black woman. There aren’t a whole lot of Black women in this athletic department. There aren’t a lot of female coaches. I’m speaking from a place that probably not a whole lot of people understand,” Staley said in The Athletic interview.

Do not be fooled into thinking Staley’s passion could jeopardize fan support or athletic department boosters. That is not the case in Columbia.

Staley’s Gamecocks have led the nation in home court attendance for six seasons, averaging more than 12,000 fans per game. (For reference: College of Charleston’s TD Arena only holds 5,100 fans.)

In the face of racist “shut up and dribble” criticism, in the middle of blood-red South Carolina, Gamecocks fans know their coach is the real thing. They show up.

Her team may have fallen short on Friday against Stanford, but for Staley, the struggle is far from over.

“The bottom line is, we’re gonna keep fighting to grow our game,” Staley told USA Today on Monday. “So, are you gonna look away again? Or are you gonna fight with us?”

We’re ready for the fight, coach. Keep it up.