“Lawyers were involved weeks ago”: the latest on Dawn Staley’s feud with Missouri

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COLUMBIA, S.C. (WOLO) — On Thursday, South Carolina women’s basketball coach Dawn Staley filed a lawsuit against University of Missouri Athletics Director Jim Sterk after a more than three-week public battle between both parties.

The civil lawsuit, filed in Richland County, South Carolina, stems from comments made by Sterk following the Tigers’ 64-54 loss to the Gamecocks on January 28 at Colonial Life Arena.

Two days after the loss, in a radio interview with Columbia, Missouri radio station KTGR, Sterk made several accusations against Dawn Staley and South Carolina’s fans in attendance during the loss.

“We had 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,” he said.

Staley is seeking $75,000 in damages, not including court or legal fees, citing Sterk’s “false, defamatory and reckless” statements.

Following No. 7 South Carolina’s 57-48 win over No. 24 LSU Thursday night, Staley deflected questions about the impending lawsuit.

“All questions can be referred to my attorney.”

Staley’s lawyer, Butch Bowers, was unavailable for comment Thursday afternoon.

According to experts ABC Columbia interviewed Thursday, the Hall of Fame coach Staley could face a steep climb in her legal battle with Sterk.

“The defendant will likely argue that she’s a public figure,” said one expert, choosing to remain anonymous. “That raises the standard… generally, you can prove defamation if you prove negligence i.e. you should have known better. But for public figures it’s a higher standard of at least recklessness, the purpose of that is to encourage robust public discussion.”

To put simply, for Staley to win the lawsuit, she must now prove that a) Sterk knew his comments were false when he made them and b) she (Staley) did not promote a hostile environment on January 28 during South Carolina’s game against Missouri.

“So actual malice requires a showing that the person who said the allegedly defamatory thing did so actually knowing it was false, or with reckless disregard as to the truth (they entertained serious doubts as to whether it was true and said it anyway). Basically, if he had a good faith belief for saying it and believed it was true, and didn’t say it with the intent of harming her reputation, he’ll probably win the lawsuit.”

Two hours after Staley’s lawsuit against Sterk was made public, SEC commissioner Greg Sankey fined Sterk $25,000 for his comments about Staley and South Carolinas fans.

“There is no place in this league for discord inside or outside of the arena,” said Greg Sankey, in a statement announcing the penalties.

“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,” he said. “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.”

The timing of the fine seems odd on the surface, but sources close to SEC commissioner Greg Sankey told ABC Columbia Thursday night that the commissioner had participated in multiple talks with both parties and that “lawyers had been involved for weeks.”

“They hoped for a resolution before now,” said a source, choosing to remain anonymous. “Greg (Sankey) wanted to move on, but eventually he had to bring the issue to a head.”

USC officials and fans expected a reaction from the league and Missouri earlier. Athletics officials from South Carolina called for an apology even shortly after Sterk’s comments.

“I do believe a retraction is necessary from Jim Sterk’s comments,” said USC Athletics Director Ray Tanner on Wednesday, January 31.

Shortly after Sterk’s allegations, USC conducted an investigation into its fan behavior and security, interviewing security personnel and reviewing security camera footage taken during the game, but found no evidence supporting Sterk’s claims.

“We had an incident, so called, that we needed to check out and we did,” Tanner said on January 31. “We didn’t get any confirmation on that from seven people who were very closely involved in the situation.”

South Carolina state law requires an Alternative Dispute Resolution (ADR), which requires parties involved to meet with a neutral mediator within 210 days. If the two sides can’t settle the dispute out of court, the case will be tried.

Categories: Local News, Local Sports, Sports, USC Gamecocks