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Amid racial tension, South Carolina coach Dawn Staley encourages all colleges to 'get out of their comfort zone'

Dawn Staley recalls the difficulty of adjusting from where she grew up in Philadelphia to Virginia's campus as a player in 1988-92. Now the women's basketball coach at South Carolina and for the U.S. national team, Staley spoke Wednesday of the need for everyone in college athletics to "get out of their comfort zone" and have conversations about race.

Staley took part in a Zoom panel titled "A Time for Action," sponsored by the Women's Basketball Coaches Association. Joining Staley were UConn coach Geno Auriemma, recently retired Notre Dame coach Muffet McGraw and former college and WNBA coach Carolyn Peck, who's now an ESPN analyst. The panel was moderated by NBA sideline reporter Angel Gray, who played basketball at Florida State.

"On our campus, our president is implementing a diversity course that all incoming freshman have to take, and I think that's a great thing," Staley said. "Further along, there are sophomores, juniors, seniors and maybe professors and people who work in the athletic department that need these courses, as well.

"When we have all-staff meetings, I'm one of two head coaches here that are black. I would like to see us bridge the gap -- because there is a gap, whether we believe so or not -- within our athletics departments. I think athletics speaks very loudly on college campuses. And if we can set the example of what it should look like, it will have some trickle-down effect."

McGraw, who retired from coaching in April and said she wanted to transition into more of a public advocacy role for women, agreed with Staley.

"I think sports is a great place to see, 'This is what we're teaching kids: these great life lessons,'" McGraw said. "They're having to learn how to get along with people of different backgrounds, different religions, different politics, and are able to co-exist really well."

But McGraw pointed out that she and other white coaches also have to listen to and learn from players.

"As a mom, I never had to teach my son what it's going to be like if you go out and a cop pulls you over," she said. "I've never had anybody follow me around a store thinking I was going to be shoplifting. The biggest thing we can do is understand this is real and figure out what we can do to fix it.

"Change starts with you. You can't be accepting when you hear things said that you know are wrong. You have to stand up and be anti-racist."

Peck, who is black, talked about an experience she had about nine years ago while living in Florida. She was pulled over a half a block from her home by police and instructed to get out of her vehicle.

"The police officer asks me for my driver's license and registration," Peck said. "And as he's looking at my license, he asks, 'What are you doing in this neighborhood?'

"It happens in any neighborhood, and it happens because of the color of your skin. And don't get me wrong: There are great cops. Hell, I'm married to a retired police officer, and we have a lot of friends who are police officers. But they have to acknowledge there are things that need to be changed in the training and the mentality of some cops."

Auriemma said he has been having conversations with his players about the roots of inequality and racism. On May 31, rising junior Christyn Williams tweeted out a statement on behalf of the UConn team in support of the Black Lives Matter movement, which Auriemma supported.

"Some of the stuff that some our fans have written since our players took a stand, it's disgusting," Auriemma said. "If you love us when we're winning on the court, you better love us when we have something to say that you don't like."

Auriemma also said that both the UConn men's and women's basketball programs had a Zoom call Wednesday about presenting a united front and working to educate and interact with various groups outside of athletics, including outreach to local schools and to campus police.

"How do we do our part?" he said. "That's what we're trying to figure out every day now."

Staley said she appreciates the platform she has now at South Carolina, where in 2017 she became just the second black head coach to win the NCAA Division I women's basketball title. Peck was the first to do so, in 1999 with Purdue.

The SEC leads the power five conferences in regard to black head coaches in women's basketball; the league has six. Staley also pointed out that both her and Peck's alma maters, Virginia and Vanderbilt, currently have black women as athletics directors in Carla Williams and Candice Storey Lee. Having more people of color in leadership positions is a necessary part of progress in athletics, Staley said.

"Change is going to happen on the personal level," Staley said. "Looking back on my time at Virginia [as a player], I'm able to do what I do here at South Carolina because of my experience at Virginia. I wasn't intimidated, but I was uncomfortable. But I got through it.

"I have a voice here in South Carolina, and people listen. I've peeled back my layers, and they've allowed me to grow and strengthen my voice."