South Carolina women's basketball coach Dawn Staley and Missouri athletics director Jim Sterk have reached a settlement in Staley's defamation lawsuit filed in February, the University of Missouri announced Thursday in a statement coordinated with Staley.
In the $50,000 settlement, according to the statement, $25,000 will go Staley's INNERSOLE nonprofit organization and $25,000 will go toward attorney fees.
"The money is a non-issue, but glad we got a settlement," Staley said in an interview with WIS News 10. "This was about my reputation and what I've built over my career and also just being my mother's child. I am a child in which, my mother raised me properly. If anything synonymous with anything that's negative, if it's seen in that light, it's a direct relation to what she's done in raising me and raising her four other kids, so I'm extremely happy."
Staley filed a lawsuit against Sterk in February, claiming defamation and negligence and seeking up to $75,000 in damages.
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. The series between the two teams has been testy for more than a year, but grew increasingly heated this past season, as Mizzou fans reportedly called Staley and her players "thugs" during a physical contest in Columbia, Missouri, and a brief shoving match erupted between the two teams on the floor of Colonial Life Arena during the Jan. 28 game.
Staley gave Sterk a chance to retract his comments accusing her of fostering a hostile, racist environment in Colonial Life Arena, but after he failed to do so, she said she had “no alternative” but to defend “the sterling reputation she spent a lifetime building.”
“Following a very spirited and intense game I attended in late January between the nationally ranked Missouri and South Carolina women’s basketball teams, I made comments in a local radio interview that were construed to suggest that Coach Staley promoted the negative experiences of racial epithets and spitting,” Sterk said in the statement. “I do not believe Coach Staley would promote such conduct, and I sincerely apologize to her for those comments.”
Staley, in a statement, said: “I accept his apology and I appreciate the contribution of $25,000 to INNERSOLE, a not for profit organization I co-founded that provides new sneakers to children who are homeless or in need. I’m glad we can share in support of this worthy cause and I look forward to moving past this with a continued spirited but positive competition amongst our programs.”
The settlement will be paid by the University of Missouri, according to the statement, "since Sterk made his comments in good faith while performing his duties as a University employee."
Staley's attorney, Butch Bowers, told WIS that the settlement was proof that Sterk's comments fit the legal definition of slander, a point that some legal experts had previously said might prove difficult for Staley's team to prove in court.
"This does speak for itself," Bowers said. "It shows that we clearly had legal standing. Coach Staley is an icon, as we all know, in the world of basketball, and in legal terms, there's a high standard, because she is a recognized public figure, but we still believe the comments by Mr. Sterk were deplorable and rose to the level of, given her standing, filing suit."
Shortly after Sterk's initial comments, Staley defended South Carolina fans, calling them "loyal (and) passionate" and saying they "understand how to act in the stands." On Thursday, she reiterated that defense.
"Our fans have been gracious, they've been kind. They've been spirited in a way that yes, they cheer hard for our women's basketball teams, but they do appreciate good play, good sportsmanship, and I'm glad we finally got to a point where our names are cleared when it comes to playing basketball and supporting basketball in a place like Columbia, South Carolina, and at the University of South Carolina, a place like no other," Staley told WIS.
In a statement issued Thursday by Sterk, however, he said he still had concerns about fan behavior "during and after our game at South Carolina, including incidents of being spit on, a racial epithet, and other derogatory comments."