Let’s start with this thought: South Carolina’s women’s basketball team plays No. 1 UConn in Colonial Life Arena on Thursday, and it’s the second-biggest women’s basketball story of the day in Columbia.
For a long time, UConn was the only story in women’s basketball. As the Gamecocks, and others like Mississippi State, to be honest, have challenged the Huskies, the sport has become defined by a handful of games a year. Thursday night is one of those games – defending national champion South Carolina against perennial national champion UConn. Getting this home-and-home scheduled with the Huskies was a big deal for USC. This game is the ultimate payoff of that, and all anyone wants to talk about today is USC vs. Missouri.
That’s because of what Tigers athletics director Jim Sterk said Tuesday afternoon during a radio interview in Columbia, Mo., about Missouri’s game against South Carolina on Sunday in Colonial Life Arena: “It wasn’t a great atmosphere. 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 (USC coach Dawn) Staley promoted that kind of atmosphere, and it’s unfortunate that she felt she had to do that.”
That interview took place at 5:34 p.m. EST, and, boy, did it start something.
At 7:03 p.m. Tuesday, South Carolina released a statement from athletics director Ray Tanner saying the school had investigated “accusations regarding our crowd’s behavior” and found no evidence of improper behavior. Tanner had talked to Sterk before releasing that statement and after Sterk’s radio interview but was unaware of Sterk’s comments on the radio at the time they spoke, Tanner told 107.5 FM on Wednesday.
At 11:13 p.m., LaChina Robinson, a former Wake Forest player who is now an ESPN analyst, tweeted: “In legal terms this is called slander. To say that Dawn Staley promoted this type of environment is beyond belief, in fact it’s ridiculous. I am sure that there will be ‘investigations’ into this & once Dawn’s name is cleared AD Sterk owes her a public apology, at the very least.”
It is not surprising that the national sentiment would line up behind Staley, because she’s become the only person in the sport who can rival the profile of UConn boss Geno Auriemma. It’s a well-earned pedestal given her standing as a collegiate and professional player and her success as a coach. “You come at the Queen, you best not miss,” as it were.
But essentially this boils down to “We said” vs. “We said.” Some folks from Missouri said certain things happened. Some folks from South Carolina looked into it and said they couldn’t find any evidence of said things.
Is it possible one or more idiots used a racial slur and spit toward a Missouri player? Yes. Is it possible that someone misheard or misinterpreted or just flat made up something? Yes. Unless a video of some sort shows up, this will go down as Columbia (S.C.) vs. Columbia (Mo.), and we will never really know.
We’ve seen a version of this before. It was when South Carolina linebacker Bryson Allen-Williams said a Clemson offensive lineman used a racial slur and South Carolina wide receiver Terry Googer said multiple Tigers fans directed the same slur at Gamecocks players on the day of Clemson’s 56-7 win against USC in 2016.
Nobody beyond the people involved in the alleged incidents knew then the exact truth, nor do they today. Clemson coach Dabo Swinney denied it, saying he believed his players. South Carolina coach Will Muschamp said “obviously” it happened because he believed his players.
This is how this works, you believe the people who like the same team you do and don’t believe the people who don’t. Even the media coverage tends to line up these days based on geography. In some cases, that’s because many media members are more biased than old folks like me were taught to be years ago.
In some cases, that’s simply because of basic human emotion. Ray Tanner is a very likeable guy, and I tend to believe the things he says. My guess is my counterparts in Missouri would say the same thing of Sterk. In fact, St. Louis Post-Dispatch writer Dave Matter basically did, tweeting this Tuesday: “For what it’s worth, Jim Sterk is the least headline-grabbing, self-promoting AD I’ve ever covered. He doesn’t go on radio to casually toss around accusations. MU radio play-by-play voice backed up Sterk’s comments.”
The idea that Staley would foster a racially biased atmosphere is absurd. Is there a conversation to be had about whether USC played up the heated nature of this rivalry? Yes. Before the game, the official Twitter account of the women’s basketball team posted this: “#Gamecocks bring your battle armor Sunday. We are duking it out with Missouri at 6pm!” During the game, the school handed out plastic hard hats to some students in the crowd. After the game, the account tweeted a video clip with the lyrics “You want war, we got war” playing in the background.
Given the fact that these teams have had shoving matches in each of their past two games, it’s worth reviewing the decisions that framed the game that way. That’s the only conversation that’s worth having about this matter at the moment (and it doesn’t need to be a congressional inquiry). Oh yeah, that and Thursday night’s UConn game.