South Carolina women’s basketball coach Dawn Staley filed a lawsuit against Missouri athletic director Jim Sterk on Thursday claiming defamation and negligence and seeking up to $75,000 in damages.
Then later Thursday, Southeastern Conference Commissioner Greg Sankey issued a public reprimand and a fine of $25,000 to Sterk, while also announcing a mandated review of Colonial Life Arena’s game management and visiting team security.
After the Missouri-South Carolina matchup in Colonial Life Arena on Jan. 28, Sterk accused USC fans of spitting on Mizzou players and calling them the “ ‘n’ word,” echoing complaints on social media that Mizzou coach Robin Pingeton alluded to in a news conference.
Furthermore, Sterk said Staley promoted the atmosphere that fostered the alleged behavior.
“It was not a good environment, and unfortunately I think Coach Staley promoted that kind of atmosphere, and it’s unfortunate she felt she had to do that,” he said in a radio interview on KTGR.
Staley called the accusations “serious and false” and backed South Carolina’s fans.
The suit was filed in Richland County and describes Sterk’s comments as “false, defamatory, reckless and made with actual malice.” In the suit, Staley’s lawyer also claims that “Coach Staley has no choice” but to bring the suit after Sterk refused to publicly retract his comments or apologize.
“We’re not going to let him destroy in one day the sterling reputation she spent a lifetime building,” Staley’s lawyer, Butch Bowers, said in a statement to The State.
After her team defeated LSU on Thursday night, Staley declined to answer questions about the lawsuit and its timing, as it was filed on the same day that USC celebrated senior A’ja Wilson’s last regular season home game.
When asked if the SEC’s fine changed anything for her from a legal standpoint, Staley simply said, “no.”
“We’re moving forward and all of the other questions can be referred to my attorney,” she added.
The court has ruled that the lawsuit is subject to Alternative Dispute Resolution (ADR), which requires the parties involved to meet with a neutral mediator within 210 days, in this case Sept. 20. If Staley and Sterk can not reach an out-of-court settlement in that time, the case will go to trial.
After the pair of tense games between the teams, Missouri coach Pingeton didn’t dispute a question about her players getting spit on, and soon after, Sterk made his comments on a radio show.
Several high-profile individuals jumped to Staley’s defense, including ESPN broadcaster LaChina Robinson, who called Sterk’s comments “slander,” and ESPNW reporter Mechelle Voepel, a Missouri alum, who said she was “embarrassed” by them. Both Voepel and Robinson were cited in the lawsuit.
South Carolina athletics director Ray Tanner asked Sterk for a retraction and a school investigation did not find any evidence of the referenced fan behavior. Sankey issued a statement saying he had spoken with Tanner and Sterk about the situation but not revealing any disciplinary actions.
Thursday, Sankey mandated a Conference office-led review of South Carolina's game management procedures and visiting team security.
"I welcome the review from the Southeastern Conference into our game management procedures and visiting team security,” Tanner said in a release.
In a statement to The State, Tanner’s office said of Staley’s lawsuit that “we have just been made aware of the lawsuit. Because it is a legal matter, we have no comment at this time.”
Sterk did not immediately respond to request for comment Thursday afternoon.
According to the lawsuit, Sterk told a radio station that his program has “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.”
South Carolina is second in the SEC standings, and Missouri is in a three-way tie for third. If the Tigers finish third and the Gamecocks stay in second, the two teams could meet in the SEC Tournament semifinals next week.