Staley says A’ja Wilson is absolutely ready to become the face of women’s basketball
Above all else, Dawn Staley wants the WNBA to survive.
That’s her priority as the league enters a critical point in its history — TV ratings are up, but attendance is down. Throughout 2018, players have been speaking out with increasing frequency about nightmare travel, low pay, controversial officiating and sexism, among other issues. And by Oct. 31, the WNBA’s players’ association has to decide if it will opt out of the current collective bargaining agreement in pursuit of a better deal.
In other words, a lot is happening, and Staley, one of the greatest point guards in league history, appreciates both the challenges and the opportunities this moment presents.
That’s not surprising given Staley’s WNBA experience — her career stretched from 1999 to 2005, and in that time, average attendance declined from 10,207 to 8,172. The two teams she played on, the Charlotte Sting and the Houston Comets, have since folded.
So when she hears players, including one she coached at USC in A’ja Wilson, calling for better pay, she understands the frustration but urges prudence.
“I do feel like the players need to make more money, but it has to be done in a way where it doesn’t break the league, because the league has been around for a long time, and A’ja ... was just born right around the start of the league,” Staley told The State. “So just because of that, she was able to work on her game and have that carrot of the WNBA dangling in front of her and she has something to strive for. She wanted to be the No. 1 pick in the WNBA.
“If the WNBA and the players get to a point where they deserve, yet we’re breaking the bank, the league’s not going to be around for very long and that carrot that was dangled in front of A’ja won’t be there for the next generation.”
South Carolina has five alums currently in the WNBA — Wilson, Allisha Gray, Kaela Davis, Tiffany Mitchell and Alaina Coates. For the past season, Gray was paid the most at $52,623, and Davis made the least at $43,452, according to data compiled by High Post Hoops.
All told, Staley said she feels that as long as people keep talking about the issues players have been voicing, progress will be made.
“I think just by having the conversations, that’s where growth takes place. And it’s probably not something that you want to feel on either side of it as far as the powers that be on the WNBA side nor the players,” Staley said. “(But) it’s good when there’s conversation that sparks some controversy. It reaches a lot of people, and those conversations are good.”
SOCIAL MEDIA TROLLS
The flipside of all that conversation is there are still some people who belittle women’s basketball and try to troll players and coaches on social media.
Insults, however, don’t bother Staley that much, at least comparatively. She takes them as a sign that people are paying attention, which is better than being ignored.
“Here’s how I equate that. If I’m coaching a player that just is unruly, she just hasn’t been in this situation before and doesn’t know how to respectfully react to certain things, to being coached, to being criticized, and they suck their teeth and roll their eyes, I really don’t get as mad, because they heard me,” Staley explained. “We got a reaction. Now we have to work on how you respond, respectfully and in a way that’s presentable and represents who you are as a person, not that moment.”
Staley’s understanding, however, only extends to people willing to sit down and actually watch a women’s basketball game, and in that regard, she echoed sentiments expressed recently by Wilson to The Undefeated
“That’s pure ignorance, but I would say I would not spend a whole lot of time with them because you’re making them relevant,” Staley said of those who criticize the game without watching it. “And the point is, you’ve watched, or if you didn’t watched, then you don’t really need to spend any time trying to defend women’s basketball. But if you’re an enthusiast just for basketball, there’s no way you can’t have watched a WNBA game and come back thinking these players are incredible.
“I watch it on television and live, and I question whether or not I could have played in the league now. That’s how good the players, that’s how quick the game is, that’s how strong they are, that’s how talented they are, and all of that happens because of the strength of being here for 22 years.”
But when asked to pick someone she hasn’t coached who she thinks represents the future of women’s basketball, Staley went with another post player — Australian Liz Cambage, who currently plays for the Dallas Wings in the WNBA.
“You don’t see that, the agility, the length, the height, the nastiness, she plays with a chip on her shoulder. She’s incredibly talented,” Staley said.
Whether or not Cambage will return to the U.S. next year, however, is still an open question — she will make more money playing in China and has said she may want to preserve her body from injury by skipping out on the WNBA. That uncertainty seeped into Staley’s answer.
“I think that ... I hope that’s our future. I hope there are more players like her because it’s going to grow the game,” Staley said.