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Hall of Fame college coach Dawn Staley Reflects on the state of women's basketball.

MARY LOUISE KELLY, HOST:

We begin this hour with a giant in women's basketball, Dawn Staley. As a player, she ran point for the University of Virginia, also Team USA at the Olympics and in the pros. As a coach, she just notched her third national championship this month when her South Carolina Gamecocks defeated the Iowa Hawkeyes. Now, 10 days after popping those championship corks in Cleveland, Coach Staley celebrated in Brooklyn as her latest star player, Kamilla Cardoso, was drafted into the WNBA. It has been a banner year for women's basketball. Viewership is up, way up. There are more stars than you can count in women's hoops. And Coach Staley stands at the heart of so much of it. Dawn Staley, welcome to ALL THINGS CONSIDERED and congrats.

DAWN STALEY: Thank you so much and thank you so much for having me.

KELLY: Well, I want you to start big just with this moment. I mentioned the WNBA draft. It was just two days ago that we saw your player, Cardoso, sign into the pros, a lot more stars - Angel Reese, Caitlin Clark and so on. How does it feel to be part of all this excitement right now?

STALEY: It's long overdue.

KELLY: Yeah.

STALEY: If I said this once, I've said this a thousand times, our game has been held back for such a long time. And now we are bursting through the seams because we have talent, both experienced and some youngsters that are household names. We have some great basketball programs. I know only one team gets the win, but there were several in the conversation that could have won a national championship. And the parity that is very prevalent in our game is here to stay.

KELLY: Let's talk about the contracts that women are signing. The salaries they earn are low compared to the NBA. There's been a lot made of the fact that Caitlin Clark just signed $76,000 a year. I know there's all kinds of underlying reasons for that. I know the WNBA works on a predetermined pay scale. Do you see signs that salaries could go up?

STALEY: Yeah, salaries will go up, but they won't go up astronomically. Here's what we need to really understand and put things in perspective. I know everybody is on heightened alert because of Caitlin Clark and all the things that she's helped with women's basketball growing and viewership numbers. Like, Caitlin Clark is not making a lot of money, she's making a lot of money outside of her salary. So...

KELLY: Right, sponsorship deals and so on. Sure.

STALEY: Yes, let's be happy she has supplemental income. So I'm thankful that companies are seeing her worth because she's worth more than $76,000. We know that. We have to go back to when the NBA was just 28-years-old and see those salaries and see if they're comparable to that. We're just a really young league.

KELLY: Yeah.

STALEY: We can't go there because we have an incredible, talented player in Caitlin Clark. We can't go to raise the salaries to what we think are deserving. If that's the case, then we won't have a league. But we got a league that's been around - I don't know - I think this is its 28th year, and it's provided opportunities for us to be professionals. Caitlin Clark grew up only knowing that there was a WNBA.

KELLY: Like, it's always been out there. There was always going to be a place to go.

STALEY: Yes.

KELLY: Wasn't the case when you were coming up.

STALEY: Exactly. So I see the growth. I see where it's headed. It may not be during my time, but, you know, salaries will get to $1 million. It will happen because we're taking the same trajectory as the NBA. But I think we're going to be more popular than we are today because you're going to have more Caitlin Clarks. You're going to have more A'ja Wilsons, you're going to have more Breanna Stewarts. You're going to have more and more because if you're growing up around watching the WNBA and watching what college women's basketball is today, you're going to be better because of it.

KELLY: Are you already thinking about next year, what it's going to take to win again?

STALEY: Yes, because I like it.

KELLY: (Laughter).

STALEY: I mean, I like the tiredness. Like, I'm tired, but I enjoy it. I just came back off of a walk. And I walked the city and I walked through campus and, you know, the beeping of the horns. You know, the can I take a selfie? The stopping of traffic...

KELLY: Oh, this is people honking at you saying, hey, coach.

STALEY: Yes.

KELLY: Yeah.

STALEY: Yes, for women's basketball. It's not for me. They're honking for women's basketball. That's what I look at it as.

KELLY: You're making me think, what a moment this is for some little girl who's riding past in a car watching that. You're the same age I am, 53, right?

STALEY: Yes.

KELLY: There was nobody out honking for women's basketball coaches walking down the street when I was a little girl.

STALEY: At all. So that's what I think about. Like, I don't - I've had my fair share of the spotlight. I cringe at spotlight. I want our game to shine. And I want the people in our game to shine, all of them - players, coaches, fans. I want the decision-makers of our game to shine. And I do want them to feel bad. I want the ones that decided that women's basketball, you know, didn't deserve to be on prime time, I want them to cringe. And I want them to regret not putting us center stage.

KELLY: Coach Staley, thank you.

STALEY: Thank you.

KELLY: That's Dawn Staley, coach of the three-time champs, the South Carolina Gamecocks. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

Sarah Handel
[Copyright 2024 NPR]
Mary Louise Kelly is a co-host of All Things Considered, NPR's award-winning afternoon newsmagazine.
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