Dawn Staley fires back on Missouri accusations
South Carolina women’s basketball coach Dawn Staley has filed a civil lawsuit against Missouri athletic director Jim Sterk for defamation and slander.
According to records, Staley filed the complaint Thursday in Richland County, S.C. Staley is seeking an award of no more than $75,000, according to the suit.
The lawsuit references Sterk’s comments during radio interviews after the Mizzou women’s basketball team’s game at South Carolina on Jan. 28. The Tigers lost 64-54 to the Gamecocks. The physical game involved a scuffle between the two teams and followed an earlier matchup at Mizzou that the Tigers won. Referees ejected Staley from that first contest between the two teams.
According to the lawsuit, Sterk attended the game in South Carolina and told KTGR radio in Columbia that Missouri players were spit on and called racial slurs by fans, and he thought Staley "promoted that kind of atmosphere, and it's unfortunate that she felt she had to do that."
The lawsuit contends Sterk's claim that Staley “intentionally promoted a hostile and negative atmosphere designed to incite riotous conduct at a college basketball game in which her team was participating was false, defamatory, reckless and made with actual malice.”
Later Thursday, Southeastern Conference commissioner Greg Sankey fined Sterk $25,000 for violating SEC Bylaw 10.5.1 during his interview with KTGR. The bylaw states that "coaches and administrators shall refrain from public criticism of other member institutions, their staff or players."
Sankey also announced the conference assigned staff to work with South Carolina athletic director Ray Turner on a review of South Carolina's "game management procedures and visiting team security."
On Jan. 30, when a reporter asked Missouri coach Robin Pingeton about the accusations — which first picked up traction because of a tweet by former MU player Sierra Michaelis — the coach appeared to choke up. She avoided specifically mentioning any actions about Gamecocks fans, but she said she was "really disappointed with some things that transpired."
"Fans have got to be better," Pingeton said on Jan. 30. "… All around. Our side. Their side. Fans have got to be better. These are daughters playing a game they love to play."
The next day, Staley called the accusations "serious and false." According to The State newspaper, she said the accusations would "be handled in a manner reflective of those facts." Tanner told reporters an internal investigation did not confirm any of Sterk’s claims.
"I do believe a retraction is necessary from Jim Sterk’s comments," Tanner said on Jan. 31.
The suit also references an interview Sterk gave with 101 ESPN in St. Louis a couple of days later. The suit claims Sterk operated with “apparent ignorance of the outcry from the women’s college basketball world” that his statements were false when he spoke to 101 ESPN. According to the lawsuit, Sterk told 101 ESPN that his program had “moved on. … And kind of in the words of that famous philosopher Forrest Gump, that’s about all I’ve got to say about that.”
The South Carolina athletic department said it was aware of the lawsuit but was not in a position to comment because it is a legal matter.
Staley's lawyer, Butch Bowers, told The Star "Mr. Sterk's refusal to retract his statement and apologize for it left coach Staley with no choice but to protect her reputation and integrity."
"We look forward to proving that his comments were false and defamatory in court," Bowers said.
Sterk did not comment on the lawsuit, but late Thursday, MU chancellor Alexander Cartwright and University of Missouri System president Mun Choi said in a joint release regarding the SEC's fine that they "remain confident in" Sterk.
"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," the statement read. "He has proven himself to be an excellent administrator."
South Carolina is second in the SEC standings, and Mizzou is in a three-way tie for third. If the Tigers do finish third and the Gamecocks hold on to their second place spot, the two teams could meet in the SEC Tournament semifinals.