COLUMBIA, Mo. – South Carolina women’s basketball coach Dawn Staley has sued Missouri athletic director Jim Sterk for slander, according to court documents that were filed in the South Carolina Court of Common Pleas on Thursday.
Staley is seeking damages of $75,000 for comments Sterk made on KTGR in Columbia, Mo., on Jan. 30.
Sterk has 30 days to respond to the lawsuit.
The conflict stems from Missouri’s game at South Carolina on Jan. 28, which was played in front of 13,433 fans at Colonial Life Arena. The Tigers were booed throughout the game, a heated 64-54 Gamecock victory that included a scuffle in the second quarter.
Two days later, Sterk appeared on KTGR’s “The Big Show” and was asked by host Matt Michaels lightheartedly if he was glad to make it out of Columbia, S.C., safely.
“It wasn’t a great atmosphere,” said Sterk, who was seated courtside at the game. “It was really kind of unhealthy, if you will. 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 atmosphere. It’s unfortunate that she felt she had to do that.”
A few hours later, Southeastern Conference commissioner Greg Sankey issued a public reprimand of Sterk and fined him $25,000 for violating SEC bylaw 10.5.1, which states “Coaches and administrators shall refrain from public criticism of other member institutions, their staff or players.”
In the same release, Sankey said the league would conduct an office-led review of South Carolina’s game management procedures and visiting team security.
“Both Missouri and South Carolina have cultivated highly successful women’s basketball programs, which enjoy tremendous fan support and have earned the respect of this office,” Sankey said. “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 continued, “I have had multiple conversations over the past few weeks with representatives of both schools about the problems emanating from their January 28 game and it has been my desire for those issues to be mutually resolved between the athletic programs and individuals involved. Unfortunately, a mutual resolution does not appear imminent. Our hope is that we can direct our focus back where it belongs – on our student-athletes and on-court competition.”
Neither Sterk nor MU athletics would clarify exactly how Staley promoted the negative environment immediately after the claims were made.
Staley told reporters on Jan. 27 that “I think our fans will give the extra stuff, and we’ll let them feed us the energy that we need to win the game.”
She also said that in the team’s first matchup of the season, an 83-74 Missouri victory, “there were some things out there that weren’t basketball, that weren’t basketball plays. And if we can clean up those parts of the game, you’ll get a great game from us. ... And I get that you want to take key people out of the game. We want to do that. If we get the opportunity to get Sophie (Cunningham) out of the game, yes, we’re going to try to do that, but within the confines of the rules of the game.”
Other members of the Missouri program said that spitting and slurs were used during the game. When asked on Jan. 29, Robin Pingeton neither confirmed nor denied that spitting took place but said, “There’s certainly some things that are really unfortunate that transpired, not only verbally but in some other things.”
In a press conference on Jan. 30, Gamecocks athletic director Ray Tanner said that the athletic department provided added security for the Tigers in the arena and a review of game operations failed to turn up evidence of “the alleged behavior.”
Staley and Tanner responded to Sterk’s claims on Jan. 31. Tanner called for Sterk to retract his claim that Staley incited a negative environment, while Staley said that “the accusations are serious and false, and they will be handled in a manner reflective of those facts.”
Sterk instead doubled down at his next opportunity on WXOS radio in St. Louis on Feb. 1. When asked if he had anything to add to his comments about Staley, Sterk said, “We’ve moved on, we’ve got a great game against Mississippi State tonight, the No. 2 team in the country. And in the words of that famous philosopher Forrest Gump, that’s all I’ve got to say about that.”
The issue reached the Southeastern Conference head office, but a meeting between Sterk, Tanner and commissioner Greg Sankey did not result in a resolution.
Staley’s lawsuit claims that “because (Sterk) 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 who were also falsely impugned and maligned by (Sterk’s) false comments.”
It goes on to say that Sterk’s “false and defamatory statements are slander per se in that they were designed to suggest Coach Staley is unfit or unable to properly perform her duties in her chosen occupation.”
Missouri is not scheduled to play South Carolina again this season, though the two teams could meet next week in the SEC Tournament in Nashville. Both are also likely to make the NCAA Tournament.