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Dawn Staley showed true courage in her sport’s biggest moment | Opinion

Dawn Staley didn’t flinch on the biggest stage of her career. TV ratings for the college women’s basketball tournament this year surpassed that of all other sports in the U.S. this side of the National Football League. In that moment, Staley chose to embrace Jesus’ “the least of these” rather than join others in their demonization, a display of Christianity at its best.

And then she went out and led her team to a third national championship, a feat only matched by a handful of legendary coaches in the history of women’s college basketball.

A reporter threw a curve ball of a question during a women’s Final Four press conference. He asked for Staley’s position on the inclusion of trans athletes, one of the most contentious issues in an era full of unnecessary-ginned up outrages. For instance, despite there not being enough known trans athletes in South Carolina’s public schools to fill a single basketball team, the S.C. General Assembly and Gov. Henry McMaster felt the need to force every trans athlete in public schools from elementary school to college to compete in the sport that matches their biological beginning rather than their current reality.

That question came on the heels of Staley being criticized as “too Christian” for how she described the importance of God in her life.

“Something must be wrong with you” if you don’t believe in God, too, Staley said during a particularly joyous moment after yet another win. Some took her words literally. But it was clear from the context she was using well-known Black vernacular. Those words weren’t meant to be taken literally. It’s simply the way we sometimes speak to express extreme exuberance or joy, or to emphasize a point, sometimes playfully and with tongue firmly in cheek. I’ve used that term when talking about my favorite candy, Mounds, telling my wife “Something must be wrong with” her because she likes Almond Joy more.

“If you are a woman, you should play,” Staley answered.

“Do you think transgender women should be able to participate in college basketball?” the reporter asked again.

“Yes. Yes,” Staley returned. “So now, the barnstorm of people are gonna flood my timeline and be a distraction to me on one of the biggest days of our game. And I’m ok with that. I really am.”

Staley could have dodged the question, something I imagine the University of South Carolina’s public relations folks would have preferred. The coach of the other team, Iowa’s Lisa Bluder, declined to answer.

Staley’s stance likely provided transgender people throughout the country a day of respite. For once, a public figure supported them – unquestionably – instead of giving in to those who have turned them into bogeymen for the sin of existing. It set off a firestorm among old school, high-profile coaches, former national sports commentators, and the usual elected officials. They were quick to release statements taking issue with what Staley had said. They even claimed Staley wasn’t speaking truthfully for fear of losing her job, a laughable assertion. Staley is in bright red South Carolina, not deep blue San Francisco. It would have been easier to join in the demonization of trans people. She refused. She stood up for rather than against them.

It would be nonsensical to claim Staley doesn’t care about women’s sports or doesn’t want it to flourish.

That’s what makes her words were so powerful. They can neither be summarily dismissed, nor easily ignored. Those who oppose trans athletes understand what it means for someone like Staley to take that position. As a player, she was a tenacious point guard (read: leader on the court) and won a couple of player-of-the-year honors during a hall of fame career that included an Olympic gold medal. As a coach, there has been no better ambassador for the game.

Staley’s refusal to marginalize the trans community crystallized the real question. If she isn’t afraid of the trans community, why are so many others?

Issac Bailey is a McClatchy Opinion writer in North and South Carolina.