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A message from Dawn Staley: Now is the time to grow our game. You can help.

USA TODAY
·8 min read
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Dawn Staley has been the women's basketball coach at South Carolina since 2008 and led the Gamecocks to the 2017 national championship. A three-time gold medalist as a player, she will coach Team USA at the Tokyo Games this summer. Staley is a member of the Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Fame and the Women's Basketball Hall of Fame. She spoke with USA TODAY Sports about how the conversations ignited during the three weeks of the 2021 women's NCAA Tournament can — and should — be turned into action.

Now that the Final Four is over and we’ve crowned a champion — how can you not love a game that comes down to a final shot?! — I have a favor to ask all of you who tuned in for the first time, all the people who discovered in the last three weeks just how amazing women’s basketball is:

Don’t look away.

Women’s basketball needs support and investment more than ever. What I see going on right now is a happy life movement — because when you tune into women’s basketball, your life is forever changed for good. If you’ve been watching you’ve probably seen all of the beautiful people that make up our game — players, coaches, assistant coaches, athletic trainers, performance coaches. It’s a village of people. But here’s the thing — you can create your own village.

We need to pour into young women and girls at every level, not just college and the WNBA. I go watch my godsons play in local AAU ball, they’re freshmen and eighth graders, and I see how people invest in them. Look at the money we put into young men, even though most of them will never go pro. You’ve got dads coaching, moms running around the gym, parents who are passionate and yelling at officials, officials yelling back — imagine if we put that same investment, that same passion, into young girls. Now, I’m not saying all the energy is positive but at least it’s there, and we can get it moving in the right direction.

When you automatically say women’s basketball is boring or girls can’t play, you’re doing a disservice to young people everywhere. The truth is that the people who say that are the ones who haven’t given women’s basketball a chance. And then those people decide to share their commentary on social media and suddenly, hearsay runs like wildfire. That’s what happens to women’s basketball all the time.

But when you actually give us a chance — when you come to an arena and feel the energy, when you sit down and watch us on TV — and see what these amazing women can do, you see it’s the same level of talent as the men’s, and there’s no way you can walk away from women’s basketball. You’re hooked. The same emotions you get from football, men’s basketball or any other men’s sport you get from women’s basketball: the agony of defeat and the joy of victory, all rolled into one. Our game is what March Madness is all about. The NCAA says we can’t use that term but I’m gonna use it anyway because there’s all kinds of madness — on and off the court.

Gamecocks coach Dawn Staley led her team to the 2017 women's NCAA Tournament championship.
Gamecocks coach Dawn Staley led her team to the 2017 women's NCAA Tournament championship.

Let’s talk about that. Maybe you paid attention for the first time because of the inequities that got put on blast by our players and coaches. Maybe you tuned in because you were outraged that women weren’t being treated right. Well, let me tell you, it’s nothing new. But you can help change it. What I want everyone, but especially the younger coaches in our game, to understand is if something doesn’t sound, look or feel right to you, you must act on it. I try to instill this in our players. You have to speak up. You have to have enough gall and intuition to know something is wrong and say something about it.

You know, as women, we’re the most incredible compartmentalizers. Think about it. Before games started, almost every question our players and coaches got was about the inequities. That’s all anyone wanted to talk about, it’s why we were getting attention. But they put all that aside to focus on basketball and look what it got us: upsets, buzzer beaters, a new star in Aari McDonald, Zia Cooke step-back jumpers, Haley Jones’ game-winner, two/three great Final Four games. Other people might have thought the inequities were all there was to look at, but we knew we had a product they could fall in love with. And we proved it.

I hope women, players and coaches, women who want to be coaches, are seeing the other ways we can compartmentalize, too. I mean, Adia had a baby early in the season, and she just brought her to the Final Four. Joni Taylor at Georgia, she coached in an SEC game a couple years ago and within 24 hours, she gave birth. That’s amazing. Look at me, I’m juggling coaching my team at South Carolina, consoling my players after our season ended, I’m coaching the Olympic team and have to run USA Basketball camps.

We are masters at mastering more than one thing at a time. Women are built for anything and everything. No offense to men, but we have a strength that men don’t, because we bear the children. We need women to remember that, and lean on that strength.

Sometimes I hear from women who want to get involved with young women and sports but they’re scared of failure. I get it. When men fail, they get a second chance — as women, and especially as Black women, we have to fight for every chance. But that’s why I know our game will grow and why women are about to take over: the fight we have as women is unlike anything else. It’s unmatched.

That fight and strength is what we need to grow our game. You know what else we need? Investment — from everyone. We need to think about women’s basketball like the stock market: it grows over time, and you have to put something in to see a return on your investment. And we’ll have dips just like the stock market. But we’re worth it. The men’s NCAA Tournament is now a billion-dollar industry, but it didn’t start there. The leaders in men’s basketball, they forgot the grind it took to get them there. We’re ready to grind. And if you invest in us, the return will be astronomical.

I’m glad people are paying attention to us now but what I kept thinking about during the tournament, when everyone wanted to talk about the inequities, was, are you still gonna be mad in April? Are you still gonna be invested this spring and summer? What about next season?

South Carolina advanced to the women's Final Four this season for the third time under Dawn Staley.
South Carolina advanced to the women's Final Four this season for the third time under Dawn Staley.

I’ve got good news for you: If this tournament has opened your eyes to how amazing women’s basketball is, you can get this thing year-round. You can literally watch women’s basketball all the time, between colleges, the WNBA and the Olympics. You can see the best of women’s basketball. But it’s not just about the highest levels: you can find women’s basketball in your communities and high schools and parks down the street. We’re here, and we’re ready for people to pour into us.

I want people to know that even if we were hit with a little strife, we’re comfortable in our strife because we know we have the stamina to fight it. Our game grew and it’s going to continue to grow from what we endured from the early part of the tournament. And I do believe it’s going to change. Just like with all the social injustice in our country, the way young people, especially young Black people, are giving voice to it, it’s making a difference. You can’t deny it, or us, anymore. The cover’s been blown now. You can’t go back.

We can all be better advocates. None of us do women’s basketball justice. What if everyone who loved women’s basketball took the time every day to say or tweet just one thing about the game? Think about how that could catch on. If you love the game, I know it will love you back. Women’s basketball is the place to be. If you’re passionate about anything, you can appreciate what we do because you see our passion and our fight.

The bottom line is, we’re gonna keep fighting to grow our game. So, are you gonna look away again? Or are you gonna fight with us?

This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: Dawn Staley: Now is the time to grow women's basketball. You can help.