COLUMBIA — At South Carolina, no team in recent years has been more directly impacted by the Confederate flag’s presence on the statehouse grounds than Dawn Staley’s women’s basketball squad.
But basketball seemed insignificant in the wake of nine lives lost at Emanuel AME Church in Charleston.
“You kind of reflect on what will happen in the future as far as basketball in the back of our minds. But those nine victims will always be in the forefront of what’s taken place,” Staley said Monday, when the Gamecocks’ head coach and three of her players spoke with media before departing for international play. “You know, basketball is really small when you compare it to what happened in Charleston.”
A 21-year-old Columbia-area resident who has shown interest in racial segregation and the Confederacy has been charged with the murders. The shootings during a bible study on June 17 led Gov. Nikki Haley to call for the removal of the Confederate battle flag, which has stood next to the Confederate soldiers monument in front of the statehouse since the banner was removed from the capitol dome in 2000.
Haley’s pronouncement earned universal praise from USC coaches, among them Staley, whose team went 34-3 and reached the Final Four last season. The USC women’s basketball program has been among the most directly impacted by the flag due to the NCAA’s adoption of a 2001 policy which banned predetermined championship events “in states where the Confederate battle flag continues to have a prominent presence.”
Many USC sports, such as baseball, were unaffected by the ban since the hosting of postseason events in those sports are awarded on merit. But Staley’s nationally ranked women’s basketball team was forced to play away from home in both the 2013 and 2014 NCAA Tournaments, able to play in Colonial Life Arena this past season only because the format was changed to a merit-based system in which the top 16 national seeds hosted the first and second rounds.
The NCAA ban has also prevented the Palmetto State from hosting early rounds of the men’s NCAA Tournament, NCAA golf regionals and certified bowl games. Although the ban remains in effect for the time being, that would change should the Confederate flag be removed from the statehouse grounds.
Staley, an African-American native of Philadelphia, supports Haley’s effort to make that happen. “I think it’s a great thing,” she said. But when addressing the subject, sports seemed the furthest thing from her mind.
“I think it was a tragic situation that happened in Charleston,” she added, “but those nine victims gave the ultimate sacrifice of their lives for the greater good of the state of South Carolina.”
Staley has not been the only USC basketball coach to voice an opinion on the subject. Men’s coach Frank Martin, the son of Cuban immigrants, released a statement Sunday in which he asked state leaders to “do away with those antiquated symbols that represent hate and oppression to so many people.” He elaborated on the subject speaking with media Monday at one of his summer camps.
“I believe government buildings, public facilities, should represent everybody, not just a certain group,” Martin said. “And you should be in a place where you respect everyone that represents that community in those places.”
Martin, a Miami native, also praised how the Palmetto State has handled the wake of the shootings. “I don’t think it’s any surprise, the love shown by members of this community, lifelong members of this community, during difficult times,” he said.
“I don’t think it’s any surprise our neighbors have acted in such a positive, caring way about getting better. Because the fabric of this state, what creates the people of this state to be as good as they are, is that they did experience some uncomfortable moments and uncomfortable times. And there are a lot of people who have a lot of pride for what this state represents and where it comes from, and the growth of it continues to show.”