Support from the South Carolina women’s basketball coach is ‘absolutely critical’ as trans participation in sports is politically targeted, advocates say.

South Carolina head coach Dawn Staley speaks to fans at Colonial Life Arena in Columbia, South Carolina

South Carolina head coach Dawn Staley speaks to fans at Colonial Life Arena in Columbia, South Carolina on April 8, 2024, after winning the women’s NCAA college basketball championship. (JOSHUA BOUCHER/THE STATE/AP)

Championship-winning college basketball coach Dawn Staley is acutely aware of the disproportionate scrutiny that she and other Black women in sports face. But when asked about her thoughts on transgender athletes competing in women’s sports, she did not back down. She stated clearly that trans women should have the right to play.

Black leaders from LGBTQ+ advocacy groups are applauding Staley for her support of transgender athletes and her willingness to speak out while understanding the risks she faces.

Her comments at a news conference on April 6 came during a time when state legislatures and sports governing bodies continue to implement anti-trans sports restrictions. Just two days later, the National Association of Intercollegiate Athletics (NAIA), which governs athletics for about 240 small colleges and universities, approved a policy to prevent transgender women from competing on women’s sports teams.

At the time of the news conference, Staley, head coach for the South Carolina Gamecocks women’s team and a four-time Olympic gold medal winner, was a day away from closing out a historic run. She is the first Black coach in Division I basketball to finish with an undefeated season and the first Black coach to win three Division I basketball titles.

In the midst of questions about the championship game, she was asked whether she supports trans women athletes playing women’s sports.

“I’m of the opinion that if you’re a woman, you should play,” Staley said in response. “If you consider yourself a woman and you want to play sports or vice versa, you should be able to play. That’s my opinion.”

The question directed to Staley by the Fox-owned sports news outlet OutKick appeared to be an attempt to pull her into a heated debate that has been a fixation for many conservatives.

“I think all of us were catching our breath as Dawn processed the question and took a sip of water and answered full throated, knowing very well who asked her the question and why they were asking her,” Dr. David J. Johns, CEO and executive director of the National Black Justice Coalition, which advocates for Black LGBTQ+ people, told The 19th.

Johns added that while Staley’s words as “an extremely decorated basketball player and an exceptionally accomplished basketball coach” should be able to stand on their own, there will always be an additional weight and tension shaped by her race and gender.

The clip of Staley’s statement went viral and received applause and condemnation. One OutKick commentator referred to her as “stupid” and said “she could barely put two sentences together.”

South Carolina head coach Dawn Staley and Iowa's Caitlin Clark stand together on stage during a news conference announcing the AP NCAA Women's Coach and Player of the Year.
South Carolina head coach Dawn Staley and Iowa’s Caitlin Clark stand together on stage during a news conference announcing the AP NCAA Women’s Coach and Player of the Year in Cleveland. (CAROLYN KASTER/AP)
Johns and other prominent Black LGBTQ+ advocates, meanwhile, are voicing praise.

“At a time when transgender people are being relentlessly targeted with anti-trans legislation and rhetoric, having strong advocates speak up is absolutely critical. And for someone to do it on a national stage with all eyes on them, it is significant,” Jaymes Black, president and CEO of LGBTQ+ rights nonprofit Family Equality, said in a press statement.

Twenty-four states have laws on the books that ban transgender students from playing sports according to their gender identity, according to the Movement Advancement Project, which tracks LGBTQ+ policy. Most of these laws specifically target transgender girls and women in school. Bans in Arizona, Idaho, West Virginia and Utah are currently blocked from being enforced through court-mandated temporary injunctions issued in response to lawsuits.

The NAIA, which grants scholarships and financial aid to student athletes attending mostly private colleges, does not track whether any of its roughly 83,000 student athletes are transgender, a spokesperson told the Washington Post in response to its new policy. Schools participating in the NAIA include the Savannah College of Art and Design, Texas A&M University-San Antonio and Indiana Tech.

The new policy for transgender student athletes applies to all competitions and sports except for competitive cheer and dance, which are open to all students, the organization said. Under the new policy, only athletes who were assigned female at birth can participate in women’s sports, and NAIA schools must alert the organization’s national office if a male transgender student athlete is taking hormone therapy.

Multiple outlets, including the Associated Press, reported that the NAIA is believed to be the first college sports organization to implement such a ban. In contrast, the National Collegiate Athletic Association (NCAA) has taken a phased approach modeled after Olympic sport requirements, which places final decision-making in the hands of the national governing body of each sport.

The NCAA announced in 2022 that it would require female transgender student athletes to provide proof of testosterone suppression treatment in order to compete on women’s teams. The policy has expanded in phases through the following years, and beginning in August 2024, transgender student athletes will be required to provide documentation at least twice a year.

Kelley Robinson, president of the Human Rights Campaign, the largest LGBTQ+ organization in the country, said in a statement that Staley should be recognized for supporting transgender athletes’ inclusion in sports — and that the NCAA should take her message to heart.

“At a time when too many public figures and groups like the NAIA are stoking fear about transgender young people just trying to play, Coach Staley understands that the presence of trans athletes doesn’t diminish anyone else’s success,” Robinson said. “It should be a lesson for the NCAA not to take a page out of the playbook of fearmongers. Women’s sports needs resources and funding, not discrimination and division.”

By weighing in on the issue, Staley understood she would face blowback — she has faced it before.

Last year during the Final Four, Staley challenged the media characterizations of her majority-Black team as “bullies.”

“We’re not bar fighters. We’re not thugs. We’re not monkeys. We’re not street fighters,” Staley said in April 2023. “Don’t judge us by the color of our skin. Judge us by how we approach the game,” she later added.

When speaking out on trans athletes a year later, Staley said she anticipates angry reactions.

“Now, the barnstorm of people are going to flood my timeline and be a distraction to me on one of the biggest days of our game, and I’m OK with that. I really am,” she said at the press conference, held on the eve of South Carolina’s championship game against the University of Iowa.

OutKick also asked Iowa women’s basketball coach Lisa Bluder about trans athletes. Bluder responded that she wanted to focus on the championship game. The question was designed to open the floodgate of public outrage, Johns of the National Black Justice Coalition said.

The threat of scrutiny and harassment looms larger for women, and particularly Black women. Backlash to Staley’s remarks included Republicans in Congress. Sen. Tommy Tuberville of Alabama portrayed Staley as an activist for her comments in support of transgender student athletes, saying that “she should be standing up for all those young girls, those young women she was coaching.” Republican Rep. Nancy Mace of South Carolina denounced Staley’s response as “absolute lunacy.” 

The public debate over Louisiana State University player Angel Reese further underscores this harsh reality for Black women in sports, which The 19th’s editor-at-large Errin Haines and the sports journalist Jemele Hill discuss in this week’s episode of The Amendment podcast. 

Reese has faced criticism for her behavior and outspokenness on and off the court. One Los Angeles Times writer described Reese and her teammates, most of them Black, as “dirty debutantes” in a column. He has since apologized and changed the wording. In an April 1 press conference, Reese opened up about how hard she fought to stand strong even when she received death threats.

Against the backdrop of misogyny and racism Black women in sports encounter, in addition to an anti-trans political movement, Staley’s voice resonates in a powerful way, Black LGBTQ+ advocates said.

“Not only does that make her a leader we can all aspire to be like, it makes her a class act,” National LGBTQ+ Task Force Executive Director Kierra Johnson said in a statement.

Johnson said Staley showed courage and vulnerability by choosing to answer the question on one of the biggest days in sports history — and that her support for transgender athletes aligns with her approach to coaching by letting her team “be who they are.”

“She has etched her legacy in the history books with her play, her coaching, her heart and her smarts,” Johnson said.