Gamecocks women's basketball head coach Dawn Staley has filed a defamation lawsuit against Missouri Tigers athletic director Jim Sterk for comments he made against her following a heated matchup in January.
Staley, who filed the suit on Thursday in Richland County, cites the "defendant's tortious and defamatory statements," as the reason for the suit, which also requests a jury trial. The lawsuit also outlines a provision that each party must file an alternate dispute resolution within 210 days of the suit's filing before it goes to court.
All of this stems from the game when two players fell to the floor during the Jan. 28 game, which the Gamecocks won 64-54. During play, players tried to take the ball from each other and emotions took over as the pair traded shoves. Fellow Mizzou and Gamecocks players rushed to break the two apart as coaches from both teams ran onto the court as well to defend their players.
Following the game, Sterk made comments about fan conduct - and Staley's role in it. Sterk spoke about those claims days later in an interview with KTGR Radio in Missouri.
"It wasn't a great atmosphere," Sterk said on Jan. 30. "It was really kind of unhealthy, if you will. We had our players spit on, and called the N-word and things like that. It was not a good environment and unfortunately, I think Coach Staley promoted that kind of atmosphere, and it's unfortunate that she felt she had to do that."
The lawsuit cites these comments as "false, defamatory, reckless and made with actual malice in the defendant knew that his statement was false and still made it with a reckless disregard for the truth."
Following that statement, USC Athletic Director Ray Tanner denied the claims and backed Staley saying that the accusations were investigated and nothing was confirmed.
“I’ll just say, surrounding the situation that we’ve had to deal with the last few days, I was very confused,” Tanner told the media on Jan. 31. “I felt very strongly about what we stand for here at this university and women’s basketball, our fan base, our head coach, and the way we handle our business and have handled our business over the years."
Many were baffled by Sterk's accusations, which he refused to comment on following the radio interview.
The lawsuit cites Sterk's unwillingness to retract his "slanderous allegations" as the reason for the filing.
"Coach Staley has no choice but to bring this action to clear her good name and excellent reputation, along with the reputation of the South Carolina fan base who were also falsely impugned and maligned by the defendant's false comments," the lawsuit said.
The SEC Commissioner Greg Sankey issued a statement on the matter on Feb. 1, saying: “I have had discussions with athletics directors at both institutions. Competition among SEC teams is highly intense but can never compromise the expectation of respect between our institutions. Coach Pingeton and Coach Staley have both worked tirelessly to build nationally-ranked teams comprised of outstanding student-athletes, and both teams should be celebrated for their success. I look forward to meeting in person with both athletic directors very soon to reaffirm these shared priorities and expectations.”
Following the filing of this lawsuit, however, the commissioner levied a $25,000 fine against Sterk, saying his Jan. 30 comments about Staley violated SEC bylaws.
“The SEC Code of Ethics, which was adopted by all of our member institutions, sets forth clear expectations for sportsmanship, mutual trust and respect among all participants, coaches, and administrators,” Sankey said.
Sankey said that a conference-led review of South Carolina's game management procedures and visiting team security will be mandated.
“Both Missouri and South Carolina have cultivated highly successful women’s basketball programs, which enjoy tremendous fan support and have earned the respect of this office,” Sankey said. “While we always appreciate a healthy level of competitive intensity on the court, there is no place in this league for discord inside or outside of the arena. I have had multiple conversations over the past few weeks with representatives of both schools about the problems emanating from their Jan. 28 game and it has been my desire for those issues to be mutually resolved between the athletic programs and individuals involved. Unfortunately, a mutual resolution does not appear imminent. Our hope is that we can direct our focus back where it belongs – on our student-athletes and on-court competition.”
A portion of the statement says:
In levying a reprimand and fine, the SEC determined that Sterk’s public comments about South Carolina Head Women’s Basketball Coach Dawn Staley during a January 30 radio interview violated SEC Bylaw 10.5.1, which states “Coaches and administrators shall refrain from public criticism of other member institutions, their staff or players.”
“The SEC Code of Ethics, which was adopted by all of our member institutions, sets forth clear expectations for sportsmanship, mutual trust and respect among all participants, coaches and administrators,” Sankey said.
Further, SEC Bylaw 10.5.8 establishes the expectation of member institutions to implement policies that hold their various constituencies responsible for good sportsmanship and set standards for behavior that “reflect the high standard of honor and dignity that characterize participation in the collegiate setting.”
As such, the SEC has assigned two office staff members, Tiffany Daniels, Associate Commissioner for Competition and Senior Woman Administrator, and William King, Associate Commissioner for Legal Affairs and Compliance, to work cooperatively with South Carolina Athletics Director Ray Tanner to review and, if necessary, further refine game management issues.
“We take seriously the reports from Missouri’s student-athletes about inappropriate language and actions directed at them by individual fans, and appreciate South Carolina’s willingness to engage in a full review of fan behavior from January 28. Our goal is to explore additional mechanisms for enhancing each visiting team’s experience before, during and after competition. Any lessons learned on ways to improve sportsmanship, hospitality and team security will be shared across the SEC,” Sankey said.
Fines levied against schools and individuals in the Conference are directed into a fund supporting the SEC’s post-graduate scholarship program.
According to the St. Louis Post-Dispatch, officials with the University of Missouri are responding to the lawsuit stating quote: "We remain confident in University of Missouri athletic director Jim Sterk. Since he came here in August 2008, Jim has exhibited a passion for our student-athletes and their success and safety both on and off the court."
You can read the full lawsuit here:
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