In her 15-year coaching career at South Carolina, Dawn Staley has won two NCAA championships, reached four Final Fours and taken her place as one of the top coaches in the game.
And last season, as the Gamecocks journeyed to their second title, Staley also became a style icon.
The 52-year old coach’s fashion started conversations throughout the season, especially in contrast with the more traditional outfits coaches wear as they patrol the sidelines. Her wardrobe featured a Burberry hoodie, a black leather jacket and footwear to make any sneakerhead jealous.
She cemented her status during the national championship game as she patrolled the sidelines in a green letterman-style Louis Vuitton jacket and a matching pair of shoes.
Every time South Carolina plays, viewers pay attention to what Staley wears. And in the first two games of the 2022-23 season, the coach used her wardrobe to make a statement.
Both of her outfits centered around Brittney Griner, the Phoenix Mercury star who has been wrongfully imprisoned in Russia since February.
Against Eastern Tennessee State on Nov. 7, Staley sported a sweatshirt with Griner’s face on the front and her jersey number on the back. And when her team took on Maryland on Nov. 11, in a much-anticipated contest televised on ESPN2, Staley wore a shirt that read “Phree BG” in the style of the Phoenix Mercury logo, with Griner’s No. 42 on the front.
In regard to her BG-inspired clothing, Staley told Just Women’s Sports via the team’s communications department that “there is no formal plan to do something every game.” Rather, it’s “all a game-time decision.”
Still, whether it’s through her wardrobe or her words, Staley continues to make statements about Griner in an effort to bring her home.
“I think about her every day,” Staley told reporters after her team’s win over Maryland. “I hope she doesn’t lose hope … We have to be her hope.”
Since Griner was arrested at a Russian airport for carrying a small amount of hashish oil in her bag, Staley has been at the forefront of the movement to keep Griner’s name in conversation.
Staley’s Instagram and Twitter accounts are full of daily photos of her orange “Free BG” pin, the black block letters standing out against the bright background.
She accompanies the photos with the number of days Griner has been detained – 273 as of Thursday – as well as a message of love and support for Griner and the hashtags #FreeBrittneyGriner and #WeAreBG.
Staley told Insider in October that she speaks about Griner so frequently because “BG is an incredible person with a big old heart.”
The two have a personal relationship that makes her detainment even more difficult for Staley to stomach. She coached Griner and Team USA to the gold medal at the Tokyo Olympics in 2021.
More than that, though, Staley believes in always doing the right thing, a way of living her mother instilled in her long ago.
“I’m my mother’s child,” she told Just Women’s Sports in June. “I grew up in a disciplined household, and I watched my mother be the example of doing the right thing. And the right thing isn’t always popular, but the right thing is the right thing.”
Among the basketball community, Staley’s support of Griner is met with positive reactions, but when she puts those views out into the world – and out onto the internet – there is always some negativity. She doesn’t care.
“We have to give a voice to the voiceless,” she said.
And right now, Griner is voiceless. The 32-year-old is serving a nine-year sentence in a Russian penal colony in the town of Yavas, 310 miles from Moscow.
Within the sphere of women’s basketball Griner has received an outpouring of support. Her teammates and friends in the WNBA continue to push her name forward, through social media, interviews, clothing and photos.
Friend and teammate Skylar Diggins-Smith wore an outfit dedicated to Griner during All-Star weekend, and the court where the game took place featured her initials. The players also came out in the second half of the All-Star game wearing No. 42 jerseys with Griner’s name on the back.
Now, college teams are following the WNBA’s lead.
Baylor, the program Griner led to a national title in 2012, is wearing patches on their jerseys with her initials, the number 42 and a heart to show their love and support for the WNBA star.
Baylor coach Nicki Collen and the Bears program have been vocal in their support of Griner, even as Griner’s former Baylor coach and current LSU coach Kim Mulkey has remained silent.
“BG’s family. She’s Baylor family,” Collen said in September. “To me, anything we can do to help her and her family is important.”
𝟒𝐱 Defensive Player of the Year𝟑𝐱 Big 12 Player of the Year𝟐𝐱 Naismith Trophy Recipient 𝟏𝐱 NCAA Champion BG left her mark with @BaylorWBB. This season they'll honor one of the greatest Lady Bears of all time with this patch. pic.twitter.com/6RaRG9pHn9— Phoenix Mercury (@PhoenixMercury) November 8, 2022
𝟒𝐱 Defensive Player of the Year𝟑𝐱 Big 12 Player of the Year𝟐𝐱 Naismith Trophy Recipient 𝟏𝐱 NCAA Champion BG left her mark with @BaylorWBB. This season they'll honor one of the greatest Lady Bears of all time with this patch. pic.twitter.com/6RaRG9pHn9
Stanford held a moment of silence for Griner before its opening game of the season, and the Cardinal plan to wear patches for her as well – they’ve been ordered but have yet to arrive.
Activism has long been a part of women’s basketball, as players constantly speak about causes that are important to them, from the Black Lives Matter movement to LBGTQ+ rights, among others. For many of those athletes and coaches, speaking up is second nature.
“We are tireless when it comes to doing things the right way and speaking up for all the right reasons,” Staley said of the women’s basketball community.
And right now, they are tireless in their fight for Griner and her freedom. That fight comes in many forms: through words, through actions, and sometimes through wardrobes. And for Staley, it’s all of the above.