Dawn Staley remembers when she was being recruited to play college basketball. Named the 1998 national player of the year by USA Today out of Murrell Dobbins Technical High School in Philadelphia, Staley, a guard, drew a lot of interest, yet she still had reservations welcoming college coaches to her home.
The youngest of five, Staley grew up in the Raymond Rosen public housing projects in North Philly. Despite wanting to move the recruiting visits elsewhere, at the behest of her mother, Estelle, the Staleys welcomed the coaches—well, those who still wanted to visit—to their home.
Estelle’s message to her daughter was loud and clear: don’t be ashamed of where you come from.
Now 52, Staley continues to carry the message for her mother, who passed away in 2017, and millions of other girls and women on and off the court as a vocal advocate for racial and gender equality in and around sports.
“(Growing up) I didn’t really talk a whole lot and I was really shy, but I observed a lot,” says Staley, who was honored with the Billie Jean King Leadership award at the Women’s Sports Foundation 2022 Annual Salute to Women in Sports. “There’s a shy young girl out there. There’s an intimidated young girl out there. There’s someone who grew up where I grew up who doesn’t think she has a voice and that people will listen. I do it for them. I do it for those that look like me, that talk like me, that had a hopelessness very early on.
“I hope I can be that ray of hope so they can spread their wings and fly. I just keep trying to pay it forward and help other people find their voice.”
Staley isn’t just talking the talk, but she’s walking the walk, especially for her players on the University of South Carolina women’s basketball team. The first and only Black woman to win two NCAA championships, Staley recently helped the Gamecocks land an equity-based NIL deal with Rewind, a clinical program to combat Type-2 diabetes.
Like her mother, Staley doesn’t shy from speaking out about injustices in and around her.
The 2013 Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Fame inductee canceled a home-and-home series with BYU following a racial incident at a BYU-Duke women’s volleyball match where Cougars fans yelled racial slurs at Duke sophomore Rachel Richardson. In 2021, Staley called out the NCAA for blantant discrepancies in resources and amenities between the NCAA men’s and women’s basketball tournaments.
For the past 244 days, Staley has taken to social media to share her support of two-time Olympic gold medalist and 2014 WNBA champion Brittney Griner, who has been detained in Russia for entering the country while in possession of cannabis oil.
Griner, an eight-time WNBA all-star who turned 32 on October 18, was convicted and sentenced to nine years in prison in August; her legal team will appeal the decision next week to the Moscow region court.
“I do think people are doing things,” says Staley, wearing an orange “We Are BG” pin on her lapel. “There isn’t one ounce of me that doesn’t think nobody is doing something. It’s the worst time: Russia is at war with Ukraine, and we’re supporting Ukraine. Even if we were close to something, it’s further dividing. We just have to keep pushing. Brittney may feel like no one is working on her behalf because she’s in that dire situation, but I pray for her sanity, I pray for her mental health.”
Staley’s support of gender and racial equality while not shying away from speaking up and raising awareness on such discrepancies and injustices follows in the footsteps of the trailblazing woman and activist she was honored by at the Women’s Sports Foundation 2022 Annual Salute to Women in Sports: Billie Jean King.
King, the former world No. 1 with 39 major titles to her name, has been at the forefront of gender equality in sports from her actions on and off the tennis court whether it was founding the Women’s Tennis Association, defeating Bobby Riggs in “The Battle of the Sexes” in 1973, and founding the Women’s Sports Foundation the following year to help be a guardian for Title IX.
Fifty years since the passing of the law which protects people from discrimination based on sex in education programs or activities that receive federal financial assistance, girls and women still face many disadvantages in opportunities, funding and resources in sports.
Even though girls are participating in sports in record numbers—girls comprise 43% of high school athletes participating in varsity sports in 2018-19 up from 7% in 1972—they still face many inequities.
“We’ve got a long way to go,” King says. “At the high school level, we still have less opportunities than the boys did in 1972. People think we’re caught up, but we’re not even close. Sports are a microcosm of society and if you look at all the opportunities for men, we need to have the same amount of opportunities and we need to be on the business side of it. We got a long way to go.
“I’ll be long gone but if we can get these younger generations all hepped up for the next 50-100 years, then we’ve done our job.”
Like Staley, King is putting her money where her mouth is via Billie Jean King Enterprises. The women-owned and women-led investment, consulting and marketing firm has invested in or worked alongside brands and companies including Angel City FC, Los Angeles Dodgers, Los Angeles Sparks, USTA, Just Women’s Sports, Mattel and First Women’s Bank.
“We need women on the business side,” King says. “We want women to make a lot of money. Money equals opportunity and choices and that’s what we want. Forty percent of professional athletes are women and we only get 4% of the media coverage, and that’s where it really hurts because the money is in the media rights. We don’t have that opportunity because we don’t get enough attention.”