Conference play is set to begin in college basketball, and the sport is mired in uncertainty. Student-athletes—the unpaid labor force keeping the NCAA and its member institutions fed and wealthy—are being asked to compete and entertain audiences as the country fights yet another wave of the spread of the coronavirus.
Duke’s women’s team canceled its season Friday due to “health and safety” concerns relating to COVID-19. Men’s programs at Houston and Temple have canceled numerous games and several members of Houston’s team have contracted the virus. Keyontae Johnson, a junior at the University of Florida, required emergency medical attention after collapsing on the court during a game against Florida State on December 12. Johnson tested positive for the virus last summer; it’s unclear if his collapse is related. He was released from the hospital last week, and his parents have said they “are committed to sharing not only updates on Keyontae but also any information we think could help others.”
The NCAA is intent on staging its basketball tournaments in March, even trademarking a new name in the middle of the chaos: “Mask Madness,” as they call it, will soon be in effect for any teams capable of postseason play or programs willing to participate. I recently spoke with Dawn Staley, head coach of the fifth-ranked South Carolina’s women’s team.
Staley’s program was 32-1 and poised to compete for a second national title in three seasons last March when the season was abruptly canceled, colleges were closed, and students were sent home. During our conversation, which has been edited for length and clarity, we discussed her team’s early-season protests against police brutality and systemic oppression; how her team has handled a season of strict guidelines; how she left basketball for a spell to deal with her sister’s leukemia diagnosis; the killing of Breonna Taylor and what that meant as a Black woman who coaches young Black women, and, funnily enough, her thoughts on the Philadelphia Eagles’ starting quarterback situation.
How you doing, though? How’s the program? How’s everything going?
Everything’s going as well as it could be, you know? [Laughs.]
It’s probably going better than a lot of programs out there that shut down more than once. But it’s good. I mean, I’m just happy that I’m in a routine where we’re prepping for games amidst a pandemic like we’re in. And sometimes, we are, we’re held captive to it. But for us, I think it’s really a learning lesson. Like, you truly have to be disciplined. Disciplined to the protocols and adhering to the protocols. You’ve got to be a disciplined person not to put yourself in harm’s way, because it could impact so many other people. Young people aren’t built to endure this type of sacrifice, but I’m happy that our players are leading the way.
How difficult is it to be one of the premier programs of any sport in the country, and having to get people to buy in in a different way this season? What’s it like for you coaching in an atmosphere that we’ve never really had before? Just what are some of the difficulties you’ve seen in the first few weeks?
For me, I don’t sweat stuff too often. I really don’t. I like rules. I take what they give me. If you tell me I have to test three times a week, if you tell me that you shouldn’t go out and eat in public, you shouldn’t do this or that, I’m not doing it. And then, if you tell me that, I’m going to tell the people in my bubble that. And then I’m going to keep maintaining that message. You have to maintain saying it, and being repetitive, and saying it over and over to our players so they understand it. And then you also have to let them talk.
We’ve been more communicative with our players and them with us than ever before. And it’s a beautiful thing, because you get a really good chance to see what depth young people have. Because you’ve got some of them that really, they really understand it. They really get it. And they are teaching their peers to get it. You know, the ones that are probably a little more immature than the other ones. So it’s pretty cool to see that evolution of leadership during some of the harshest times that we’re facing.
How do you, as a coach, make, in some ways, a pseudo-bubble for the people in your program, and their families? It’s easy for someone like you, having seen your practices firsthand, to get folks to buy in once they’re on your time. But, like you said, it’s a little bit harder when you’re dealing with teenagers or young adults, because you’re on a college campus. So how do you kind of incubate that level of safety? How do you get them to buy into the idea that they can’t just go and do anything at this point anymore?
I wish I could take the credit for it, but I can’t. The five months that our players were away from campus and this lifestyle of being a student-athlete, it hurt them. Like it really played on their psyche that they can’t come back to school right now. They would ask, “When can we come back? When can we come back?” And I’m just like, “We’re shut down. I mean, there’s nothing to do here. You can’t, we can’t practice. We can’t go to the gym. Everything’s shut down.”
Them experiencing that and being away from the game that long was probably the best teacher. In that, they knew if they didn’t take care of what they needed to take care of, they’ll have to go back to the dungeon, so to speak, of COVID-19, and that is being shut down and being confined. So that was helpful. When we returned to campus, we did have a—we had a couple of them that had tested positive, so we were shut down for 14 days. And then maybe a month later, we had another one. And she really didn’t know how, because she said, “I don’t go anywhere. I don’t go anywhere.” So it could have been the influx of students coming back to campus that put her in harm’s way. But ever since then, we haven’t had anything. I think it’s just them being able to hold each other accountable, of protecting whatever season that we’re going to have.
And then there’s us and we—it’s communication. We talk to their parents. We have like monthly parent Zoom calls with them, with their daughters on it. We talk more. Like we have more Zoom meetings than we actually have regular meetings, where we’re actually talking to them, besides practice. Because their day is, they are still so very full, that the time that we’re in the gym practicing, there’s virtually no other time to get the entire team in one place. So Zoom calls have allowed us to do that. And you learn more. I learn more about our players and who they are, what they stand for, how they think, how they process information, how they take care of one another. It’s kind of like we’re invading their private life, but also, it gives us a glimpse of who they are and how we need to navigate through these times.
The last time we spoke was right on the cusp of what would have been March Madness [in 2020]. ... You were the no. 1 team for nine straight, 10 straight weeks. It was clear you probably would have had a good shot at the national championship. Going from that, and now back to the beginning of this season, do you feel like you’ve lost something, or what has the year really taught you with all this time off? Because the year has transformed and shaped so many of us in so many different political and athletic arenas.
My sister [Tracey] was diagnosed with leukemia in May. So a big part of that [year] was spent on trying to get the best care for her, and to make sure that we set her up for the next 20, 30 years of her life. So it helped me put things in perspective, in that there’s no time to wallow in what happened during the basketball season. It was more of, “I’ve got to switch hats and be a sister and be a primary caregiver to my sister.” It’s not easy, you know? I don’t think I put our team on the back burner, but I was able to take care of my sister and also just stay focused.
[The team was] an outlet for me in giving me a reprieve from dealing with the heaviness of seeing your sister in a place where it rocks you. It rocks you as a family. We’re used to going through things that we can fix. That we can fix ourselves. But this was something that we couldn’t fix ourselves. I wasn’t [in Columbia] the month of September, and halfway through October, during the time that we’re [gearing] up for the season. Some of the attributes that I have that I use in navigating through basketball and sports are the same ones that I use in navigating and getting my sister the very best care for what she needed. When I talk to young people, I really talk to young people about what they’re going to face [in life], I’m speaking on sports and what sports will have done for me. But now, I can speak on the things that I applied to my sport to something real, like a real life. When I talk to young people, I also preach that “The disciplined person can do anything.” And then my other life motto is, “You have to do what you don’t want to do to get what you want.” And I don’t like asking people for anything.
Like nothing. Like nothing.
We know that. [Laughs.]
Right? But I was like, my sister needs the best care. Like, I need help. Now I don’t know anybody that has had leukemia, but I need to know who the best doctors are out there. So I called on my doctor, where I got treated at Cleveland Clinic [for pericarditis]. I said, “I need your help. I need to talk to somebody.” He got me on the phone to talk to one of their doctors, the oncologist. I called General [Martin] Dempsey, who was a professor at Duke. I called Coach [Mike Krzyzewski] to see if he could get me in contact with somebody at Duke. I talked to somebody at the [University of Texas MD Anderson Cancer Center], because, in hearing that my sister was going through this, I did put a tweet out, because I wanted prayers, and I wanted information. I called North Carolina and Sylvia Hatchell, who’s been an absolute angel through this whole process, because she went through leukemia. It basically came down to the care, and their success rate, and proximity to home, because at a drop of a hat, you’ve got to get there. COVID-19 was happening. Flying was an issue. I didn’t want to put my sister in harm’s way with that. It’s been pretty cool to see that that worked. And all at the same time, my sister’s cool, like cool. She used to tell me that, she’s like, “I ain’t no punk.”
I put that in my notebook. Because I took a notebook throughout this whole process so I wouldn’t forget. “I ain’t no punk.” I used to text her that if she had a bad day, “Here’s what you told me.” It’s super cool to go through that with her, and then being on the other side of it.
You said this before, and you said it again here, that these kind of life moments teach you so much about being a leader, in terms of the things that you can pass down as a teacher to the teams that you coach. Obviously, those life effects came into a big thing this year. George Floyd was killed, Ahmaud Arbery, and there were so many worldwide protests for the movement for Black lives that we haven’t seen before in the last decade. So much so that even the last few weeks, nine, I think nine of your 10 players protested on your court at home.
Let’s walk through that. How did it happen? Was it spontaneous? Did y’all talk about it beforehand? How did we get to the moment that we all ended up seeing?
Again, all these Zooms that we’ve been having throughout this whole pandemic really allows you to get to know our players and how they feel, and the experiences they have, and obviously the George Floyd murder really rocked them. So, it led to some conversations that we had. And then you just hear the Breonna Taylor story. It really plays a significant part in shaping who young Black people are, OK? And their growth process. And not just young Black people. But you can identify, as a Black person, you can identify with Breonna Taylor and George Floyd. You’ve got brothers. You’ve got sisters. You’ve got you. And throughout those conversations, then you’ve got our lives, you know?
With the season approaching, I just asked our players. We had conversations about how you want to express yourself, with the anthem. Our players decided that they would sit it out. All but one. And I explained to them that there’s going to be pushback. People are not going to agree with your stance. I said, “You’re going to hear some mean things. You’re going to see some mean things. You’re going to throw yourself in the fire with being here at South Carolina, with a rich history of racism.” They didn’t care, you know, because they lived a certain life.
I just reiterated, “Understand that this is going to rock some people. Some people aren’t going to like it.” So I’m just like, “Whatever you decide to do, I’m going to support you. That’s what I’m here for. I’m here to support. I can agree or disagree. Whatever. I’m here to support. I’m here as your coach, as someone that you see as a leader in your life, and someone that is in the position to shape you as a young person. I’m here for you.”
And quite honestly, for me, the flag isn’t the way I raise awareness. Like the flag, you know, I stand for the flag out of habit, and that’s what I do. The flag is a tangible thing, just like for me Black lives are tangible beings. And I do think if people feel as strongly about the flag as I feel as strongly about Black bodies being killed, I think that’s one and the same.
But people can’t get there. Like people really can’t get there. That people think that it’s a disrespect to the flag—I can’t get there. But I understand. I may not agree with them, but I can exist with them believing that. But those gung ho people cannot get there with us and our kids in saying that these things are happening in our communities. These things are happening to our friends. These are things that are happening to our parents. These things are shaping our very psyche to move and navigate through this world. And if we can’t, if you’re going to choose for us how we want to exercise our First Amendment rights, I can’t get down with that.
I can’t get down with people telling me how I need to feel and what I need to do about it. I can’t, for the life of me. Our team is what matters. And if you don’t agree with anything that we do, you really don’t have to come. But we also give you space to disagree. Most people that can’t get there don’t give people space to disagree. They think their way is the only way. That ain’t happening. That ain’t happening. Because that ain’t the real world. I want our players to feel. And let your heart lead you where it needs to go. And if that leads you to being ridiculed because you’re exercising your First Amendment rights, then you’ve got to go with it. Toughen. Thicken your skin. And let’s move through this.
You’ve spoken so much to me over the years about just your space as a Black woman who is leading this team, and usually with a team full of Black women, and the teaching that happens there on different levels. And obviously knowing that Breonna Taylor hasn’t gotten justice, and what some of your players had said after their protest, being linked to that—is there any extra tutelage there? Does it feel any different knowing there may have been some level of justice elsewhere? What space does that put you in, with the abundance of Black women that you teach every day?
There are things that you understand and you can explain away. And there are things that you don’t understand, and you have no words, no comforting words, no words to say that things are going to be OK. And that’s kind of where I am. Like I can’t explain to them what happened to Breonna Taylor or George Floyd. For our players, they’re stunned at first. They’re the nicest kids that you ever want to meet. Like, too nice. Too nice. And I just don’t want people to take their niceness for granted and use it against them when they leave here. But what they’re doing, they came up with it themselves. They’re sitting for the national anthem. I never thought it would be in them to do that. And I was shocked when they told me that that’s what they wanted to do.
Through two games here in South Carolina, there was a barnstorm of people that have emailed, that’s called for my job, that’s called for them to shut up and dribble and stay out of politics, and me, like, I think somebody accused me of making them do it, instead of asking the why. Some people just immediately jump to conclusions about our players. Some of them don’t even, haven’t been to a game. Some of them really haven’t read articles about it. Some of them are just seeing it on social media. That doesn’t garner a response. But when you actually really know and want to know the whys, you’ll walk away a lot differently. But nobody wants to go there. Nobody wants to go to that place, to really sit down and talk to 18- to 22-year-olds to figure out the impact. But everybody wants to tell them how they should act and respond to it.
Where I’m from, that ain’t how it works.
And we know it ain’t how it works in [North Philadelphia]. We know it ain’t.
It doesn’t! We don’t sit down!
I’m sorry. My mother would probably look down from heaven on me and shake her head, because we don’t turn the other cheek. We don’t.
When you sting us [laughs], we throw ‘em up! We’ve got to defend ourselves, because that won’t happen again. And I don’t want our players to ever leave here and say, “I wish I would have done things differently.” You know, people have to lead their own lives. And I do believe some of them just talk out of the side of their necks. And they don’t even have their household under control. So don’t come and try to run ours. You can tell me that you think it’s disrespectful. You can tell me all of those things. But when you’re derogatory, when you’re demeaning? No. Somebody in my neighborhood said something about me, about our players and how we’re playing bad because we’re disrespecting the flag. People are saying, “They aren’t going to feel it until [people] that used to come to games [stop coming].”
We could play in front of one person, as long as they’re authentic. And they don’t have to be allies. Just be who you are. I don’t want anything different. I don’t want to persuade you to feel like Black lives matter if they don’t matter to you. I just want to know where you stand, so I can navigate around you.
Speaking of, this was the first time in 30 games that you lost one, losing to NC State [on December 3]. You said the team was a little unselfish, untamed. More or less, they weren’t ready. And that both teams kind of needed to play a little bit better when looking at the stat line. Obviously last year, you had a big chance to win the national championship. This is the second year in a row I think you’ve had the best recruiting class in the country. You’re still expected to be favorites when it comes time, if we have a postseason. What are you looking for for the rest of the season? What are you looking for from your team? Again, it’s the first loss in 30 games, so you’re doing something right.
I mean, every opportunity that we get, and I know I sound cliché-ish, but every opportunity that we get, is to play and grow. I mean, NC State did what they were supposed to do to win the game. They deserved to win the game, OK? And I can take a loss. I just can’t take the how, the how. Like, if you beat me, if you beat us, and we play, not our best basketball, but we just play who we were for the three games that we played prior to that day, I mean, we should be OK. We would give a better showing. But for how we lost—because I’d never seen it before. I’m a person that likes to know the why. And I have yet to find out the why. And I don’t think I will find out the why.
So I’ve got to ask, as a coach, as a leader, I had to ask. I’ve got to ask, too. I’ve got to point some things out that people don’t want to, our players don’t want to say what it really is. Then it’s my job to point out the poor play and to have conversations with different players who I feel like can impact our game moving forward. And I have done that. We got 12 individuals that have aspirations to go to play at the next level. They need to be prepared for those moments, because you don’t really get do-overs. I told them that “you guys got to play like you’re auditioning for your lifelong dream of playing in the WNBA every day, not just game day, every single day.” And I did tell them [after the loss] that none of them would have been a first-round pick. Maybe the second. Maybe an undrafted player going into somebody’s training camp for that play.
It’s a coach’s nightmare to have her players not play well, individually and collectively, and do things that they’ve never done. They did things that they’ve never done for like a whole game. People think I’m a sore loser and not giving NC State credit. They got credit for winning the game.
They did what they had to do. They made their plays at the end of the game, they got defensive stops—they did what they had to do. They beat the number one team in the country. So there’s nothing, taking no credit away from them at all. But I do coach for South Carolina. And I do have to figure out what it is that makes us go, and continue to go, so that we don’t have a repeat performance like that.
It’s cool. I love it, though. I love it like, I need this comfort and strife. I need that in my life. I function well when there’s a puzzle. I embrace it. After we lost, those two days that we had to prepare for Iowa State, they were great. I could sulk and say, “Ughhhh,” but what good is that? Once I watched it again, and once I saw what needed to happen, you know, you’ve got to activate that. You’ve got to put that in motion, and let’s go. Because that’s what you want, that’s what I want our team to see, as their leader, as someone that understands the big picture. But also [to be] able to fix things immediately. So I think it was pretty cool for us to just go through that.
Well, it could be worse, you know. Y’all could be the Eagles.
There you go.
Yeah, we can’t find it, man. We can’t find it! Aw, man. I never thought this would be this way!
[Laughs.] I don’t think anybody thought it.
I never thought it would be this way.
Three years off the Super Bowl, we can’t figure it out! You can’t pay us to figure it out.
Right?! Man, they really trying to get this city in an uproar, right?
Hopefully, you know, this brother Jalen Hurts can figure it out for us.
Well, I’ve got my Jalen Hurts jersey! I’m going to wear that.
Mine in the mail! So, I’ll be right there with you on Sunday.