After the Missouri women’s basketball team upended defending national champion South Carolina on Jan. 7 in Columbia, Mo., Gamecocks coach Dawn Staley publicly questioned either the competence or the integrity of the referees.
In the process, she essentially suggested the game was somehow rigged against her team by telling reporters that she had texted the Southeastern Conference officiating coordinator shortly before the game started to complain about the officiating assignment.
Because, after all, two of the three officials had worked MU upset of South Carolina in Columbia the previous year, so how could they possibly be allowed to work this game?
“You’ve got to do better,” Staley said of what she sent to Sally Ball, SEC director of women’s basketball officials. “I’m not saying they’re the reason why, but you’ve got to do better when you’re coordinating officials.”
Think about this: Staley, who also made bizarre statements implying that fouls shouldn’t be called on her good players, more or less called the officials corrupt and taunted the SEC.
That’s far more egregious than mere complaints about specific calls that routinely get coaches reprimanded or fined.
But there was nary a consequence — at least publicly — for Staley.
What followed instead was a cascading sequence of events that as of Thursday meant the conference announcing a punishment to … Missouri athletic director Jim Sterk.
He was publicly reprimanded and fined $25,000 for comments alleging that Staley had cultivated a toxic atmosphere for MU’s return game at South Carolina on Jan. 28.
In what seemed like remarkable timing, that SEC decision was announced within hours of it coming to light that Staley had filed a lawsuit against Sterk alleging defamation and slander.
In announcing the decision, the league referred to Bylaw 10.5.1, which states, “Coaches and administrators shall refrain from public criticism of other institutions, their staff or players.”
Or as commissioner Greg Sankey put it in a statement: “The SEC Code of Ethics, which was adopted by all of our member institutions, sets forth clear expectations for sportsmanship, mutual trust and respect among all participants, coaches and administrators.”
Does it, now?
So Staley squawking about the very motivation of the officials after the game at MU, and that bit where she basically called Mizzou dirty two days before the Jan. 28 rematch in Columbia, S.C. (saying there were aspects of the previous meeting “that weren’t basketball”), that was all perfectly acceptable?
But Sterk complaining on KTGR that South Carolina fans had slurred and spit on MU players and that Staley had “promoted that kind of atmosphere” merited sanctions?
In fact, the punishment directed at Sterk to a degree is puzzling considering the seemingly contradictory corollary in the SEC’s disciplinary declaration that also “mandated a Conference office-led review of South Carolina’s game management procedures and visiting team security.”
Soooo …. the SEC is punishing Sterk even as it acknowledges there are potential issues to investigate at South Carolina that might not be getting scrutinized if Sterk hadn’t spoken up?
Not to say that Missouri is all good in this and South Carolina all bad.
Sterk certainly could have been more, or less, specific with his words to much better effect.
A case certainly can be made that he was inflammatory and inappropriate when it came to how he spoke of Staley.
But Sterk also isn’t one to speak impulsively, and he’s certainly not one to concoct a scenario in which one of his teams was mistreated.
He took a stand that needed to be taken seriously.
That’s the heart of the matter here, especially at a time when safety seems more and more tenuous.
While there’s room to believe someone misunderstood some things that were said or done that day at South Carolina, the defensive response of Staley and South Carolina athletic director Ray Tanner in the aftermath indicated they were more interested in being offended than in what actually happened.
As if they could magically account for the actions of all 13,433 in attendance that day.
Tanner conducted a rapid investigation and found no evidence of the allegations — and thus concluded there was absolutely no one in the crowd who mistreated any of the MU delegation and that Mizzou had simply made the whole thing up.
“The accusations are serious and false,” Staley said.
No, they are serious and unproven — a big difference that South Carolina could easily have accounted for to diffuse this whole thing.
Repeat after us: “At this time, we have no proof that there were racial slurs directed at any Missouri players or that anyone in the group was spit on. But we condemn any such treatment if it happened, and if anyone saw or heard any of these allegations we want to know. There is no place for that at South Carolina.”
Interestingly enough, that’s how the SEC seems to be treating this despite its ruling against Sterk.
“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 from January 28,” Sankey said in the release.
Now, maybe a more moderate stance was impossible for Staley after Sterk made it personal by calling her out.
I’m betting if Sterk had it back, he wouldn’t have put it that way.
Not necessarily because of the lawsuit or the fine as much as diminishing the clarity of his broader point.
It ultimately distracted from the pressing issue.
So it’s true everyone needs to be better here, and it’s also true that there is much to admire about Staley, who deserves her good name.
She has become a coaching great, from whom there is much to learn, and at her core is the strength and humility I remember her showing in accepting the honor of being the flag-bearer for the U.S. Olympic delegation at the 2004 Athens Olympics.
But she also deserves to be treated under the same set of rules as others in the conference are.
Because the SEC failed to do that in the first place, dominoes fell and this became an unnecessary mess.
And the apparent double-standard in all this is in neon now — worst of all unfairly blinking over an otherwise enchanted season for No. 11 MU.