COLUMBIA, S.C. – South Carolina women’s basketball coach Dawn Staley is suing Missouri’s athletic director, saying he slandered her when he suggested she created an atmosphere that encouraged fans to spit on his players and use racial slurs.
Staley’s suit filed in Richland County asks for no more than $75,000 in damages from Sterk for disparaging her reputation.
Also on Thursday, Southeastern Conference Commissioner Greg Sankey fined Jim Sterk $25,000 and reprimanded him for publicly criticizing Staley.
Sterk broke a conference rule banning public criticism of other member institutions, their staff or players, Sankey said in a statement that also said SEC officials would review how South Carolina handles its crowd during games.
“We take seriously the reports from Missouri’s student-athletes about inappropriate language and actions directed at them by individual fans, and appreciate South Carolina’s willingness to engage in a full review of fan behavior,” Sankey said.
Missouri did not comment on the lawsuit, but a statement from both university President Mun Y. Choi and Chancellor Alexander Cartwright said they backed Sterk after the SEC’s fine.
“Since he came here in August 2016, Jim has exhibited a passion for our student athletes and their success and safety both on and off the court. He has proven himself to be an excellent administrator,” the statement said.
The problems started the day after South Carolina’s 64-54 win at home on Jan. 28. The teams have played three tough, physical games in a row, and Sterk said in a radio interview the latest game had an unhealthy atmosphere.
“We had players spit on, and called the N-word and things like that. It was not a good environment and unfortunately, I think coach Staley promoted that kind of atmosphere,” Sterk said on KTGR radio.
Staley called the accusations “serious and false” right after they were made and said she lost sleep over them.
South Carolina athletic director Ray Tanner investigated, interviewing security personnel and others at the arena and found no evidence of spitting or racial slurs. He asked Sterk to retract his comments.
Sterk then gave another radio interview where he did not take back his statement or apologize, but said he was moving on.
“And kind of like in the words of that famous philosopher Forrest Gump, that’s about all I’ve got to say about that,” Sterk told 101 ESPN in St. Louis.
Staley directed questions about the lawsuit to her lawyer after South Carolina beat LSU 57-48 on Thursday night.
“Were moving forward,” she said.
Sankey said he has spent weeks trying to get the schools to solve their problems together, but failed.
“While we always appreciate a healthy level of competitive intensity on the court, there is no place in this league for discord inside or outside of the arena,” Sankey said.
Staley’s suit said the comments from Sterk were especially painful because they were broadcast around the world.
“Because the Defendant will not retract the slanderous allegations and has flatly refused to admit the falsity of the same, Coach Staley has no choice but to bring this action to clear her good name and excellent reputation, along with the reputation of the South Carolina fan base,” attorney Butch Bowers wrote in the lawsuit. The suit also details a number of Staley’s accomplishments from her three Olympic gold medals and choice to carry the American flag at the 2004 Olympics in Athens to her place in the Basketball Hall of Fame to her national championship for South Carolina in 2017 and her seven times selected as a WNBA All-Star.
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