August 14, 2019

Episode #6: Dawn Staley Has the Courage to Compete

President Bill Clinton and three-time Olympic gold medalist and NCAA women’s basketball championship coach Dawn Staley share stories of perseverance, leadership, and how, given the U.S. Women’s National Soccer Team’s fight for equal pay, women’s sports are about much more than playing a game.

In this episode, Coach Staley shares how her experiences from growing up in the Philadelphia projects to winning Olympic Gold and competing on the world’s stage as a woman of color have driven her desire to mentor others and make a positive difference. As a member of the Basketball Hall of Fame and one of the most decorated athletes of all time, she reflects upon her first visit to the White House after the 1996 Olympic Games, her work to help young people excel on and off the court, and the state of women’s sports today.

From her players, to the fans, to the countless people benefiting from her own philanthropic work and advocacy, Coach Staley’s story reminds us all how sports can lift our common humanity and help people connect across borders, generations, gender, and race.

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Speaker 1: (00:10)
The St. Louis Cardinals are on the air.

Bill Clinton: (00:12)
I’ve loved a lot of different sports for as long as I can remember. When I was in elementary school, I loved to do my homework listening to the [crosstalk 00:00:20] St. Louis Cardinals baseball games on the radio.

Speaker 1: (00:27)
Now, let’s follow the Red Birds.

Bill Clinton: (00:27)
When I was in junior high and high school, I was crazy about the University of Arkansas football team. When I was in England, later, I briefly played on the college rugby team. I wasn’t very good at any of these sports, but I sure did like it. Even though I’m quite a bit older now, sports still bring me the same thrill as they did when I was a little kid.

Bill Clinton: (00:47)
One of the greatest perks of being president, is you get a chance to meet many of the best athletes in the world. I loved the chances I had to welcome championship teams to the White House, both college and professional, and to host the Summer Olympics and men and women’s World Cups in the US while I was president. It was fascinating to me to be able to talk to people who were just the best at what they did, and try to figure out what made them tick, and how they achieved that level of excellence.

Bill Clinton: (01:13)
So, why am I telling you this? Because for billions of people around the world, sports are often about much more than just playing a game. Sports teach us about teamwork, about winning and losing gracefully and fairly, about self-improvement, leadership, and endurance. At their very best, sports lift up our common humanity, and they help people to connect across borders, generations, gender, race, all the lines that might otherwise divide us.

Bill Clinton: (01:43)
I’ll never forget visiting the athletes ahead of the opening ceremony of the 1996 Summer Olympics in Atlanta, and seeing men and women from countries all around the globe, some of whom were bitter enemies, sitting with one another in the dining hall of the Olympic Village, sharing meals, and slowly breaking the ice that divided them.

Speaker 3: (02:02)
This was opening day for the 1996 Olympic Games in Atlanta. President Clinton and his family were welcomed by athletes from around the world as he toured the facilities. President Clinton praised American athletes at the Olympic Village.

Bill Clinton: (02:15)
I want you to win all the medals you can. I want you to mop up and do great, but I want you to realize that just by being what you already are, you are a source of enormous pride to our country, and an inspiration to the world. I hope tonight, and these next couple of weeks, are the greatest time of your life.

Bill Clinton: (02:40)
Today, I’m joined by one of the athletes who won gold at those ’96 summer games, Dawn Staley. I first met her when she and her basketball teammates came to the White House after their victory. After that, she went on to win two more gold medals in 2000 and 2004, to have an accomplished career playing in the Women’s NBA, to become one of the greatest coaches in the country, leading the University of South Carolina since 2008, including winning the school’s first national championship in 2017.

Bill Clinton: (03:09)
But more than being a great basketball player and coach, Dawn Staley’s a great person. I’ve had the chance to travel throughout Africa with her, visiting some of our foundation’s programs. It’s clear that she’s driven by desire to make a positive difference in other people’s lives, from her players, to the fans, to the countless people benefiting from her own philanthropic work, and her powerful example.

Bill Clinton: (03:31)
Dawn, it’s great to talk to you today.

Dawn Staley: (03:33)
It’s so great to talk to you, President Clinton.

Bill Clinton: (03:35)
You’re one of the most decorated athletes and coaches of all times. You’re an All-American. You played for the American Basketball League, the WNBA. You’re a member of the Basketball Hall of Fame, an Olympic athlete and flag-bearer, head coach at Temple, now at South Carolina. How did this happen? What has basketball meant to you, both personally as well as professionally?

Dawn Staley: (03:55)
Well, basketball has been an incredible resource. It’s been my safe haven. Growing up in North Philly, in the projects, called the Raymond Rosen housing projects, was a place in which there wasn’t a whole lot to do besides sports, or get in something that’s illegal or that can leave a negative impact on your life.

Dawn Staley: (04:18)
I’m known for playing basketball, but if anyone that knew me growing up in North Philly on Diamond Street, they knew I played tackle football, I played softball, I played baseball. I did everything the guys were doing. I grew up with three brothers and one sister, and all of us were super competitive. And seven of us, that’s my siblings and my parents, lived in this three-bedroom house with one bathroom, so you had to compete to go in and take a shower. I didn’t win very many of those battles.

Dawn Staley: (04:52)
I had to compete because I’m the youngest to get socks and shoes. The one thing, the one thing that I had to make sure that none of my older siblings got to, were my socks. I’m a sock fiend. I had to have my pure white socks, and my seam had to lineup with my toes, and if any of my siblings wore any of my socks, I knew.

Dawn Staley: (05:17)
So, I come from a competitive family, and I’m very fortunate that I used sports as a vehicle to feed into that competitiveness. But when I first received my college letter, this interest letter, which was somewhere in between the seventh and eighth grade, I knew basketball was going to be the ticket to get me to all the pages in books that I read and imagined visiting.

Bill Clinton: (05:42)
How did your life affect how you coach?

Dawn Staley: (05:47)
I would say I’m probably the opposite of how I grew up, and how I coach. How I grew up, I was an introvert. I was extremely shy, and I wasn’t verbal. I didn’t use a lot of my verbal skills. I went to the University of Virginia, where it’s a predominantly white university. I grew up in the projects. It was predominantly… actually not predominant, it was all black.

Dawn Staley: (06:14)
So my first experiences, even with people outside of my race, all happened at the University of Virginia. When I got to Virginia, I didn’t quite know. I didn’t think I fit in with Virginia as far as what happened outside the basketball court. One, it was just, I was young. Two, again, I was shy and I was an introvert, so I wasn’t easily approachable, because again, it’s the trust thing. I had to be able to trust you. I had to be able to allow you into my space, and I did not do that very easily at the University of Virginia.

Dawn Staley: (06:47)
So for me, being uncomfortable, you get more comfortable, because I had an experience at Virginia during my first year of college where I did not do well in something that I applied myself to. It made me extremely uncomfortable. I did have a dean. I had to sit down with the dean, and she pretty much threatened to throw me out of the University of Virginia because I didn’t perform well.

Dawn Staley: (07:11)
And I’m sitting across from her. Again, I’m shy, I’m an introvert. I wasn’t very comfortable in my skin, wasn’t comfortable talking to adults that I didn’t trust. So, all of these non-verbals that I was giving off really didn’t sit well with the dean, so my coach really had to help me out. She had to have that little pep talk with me, and said, “You got to look people in their eye. You have to conform.” I wasn’t big on conforming because I wasn’t one that liked to live in a box, so that word really took me back. I said, “I’m not going to kiss anybody’s butt. This is the way I am. I’m not going to change for anybody.”

Dawn Staley: (07:58)
Little did I know, what I was saying and what I was doing at the time really was one of the crossroads in my life where I had to stop, I had to think about what I wanted my life to be without basketball. And that’s when it hit me, you have to conform. This is the way that you have to exist at the University of Virginia, and it helped me.

Dawn Staley: (08:22)
Now, as a coach, I think certain things happened to me throughout my life that has helped me get more comfortable with dealing just across cultural lines. All of those life lessons, I look back on, and it’s helped me to be able to come to a place that’s predominantly white, and unify, and reach, go across different ethnic backgrounds, and be able to hear people, talk to people, be comfortable in my skin, and let them see me for who I am. I always reflect on my days back in Virginia, and know that I was sent there for a reason other than basketball.

Bill Clinton: (09:03)
I’ve heard you say before that you think it’s important that there be more black coaches in your game. Do you still feel that way, and why is it so important?

Dawn Staley: (09:11)
Well, I absolutely do feel like not just coaches, head coaches. I feel like there should be more black coaches to coach in Division I basketball, women’s basketball, because the makeup of our sport is predominantly black. I don’t know the breakdown of the numbers, but I know it’s more than 50%, and if it’s more than 50%, they need role models, and here’s why. Because no one other than a black woman can teach another black woman how to be a black woman in America.

Dawn Staley: (09:44)
It’s quite simple. There’s certain things that they’re going to go through in their life, and they’re going to experience throughout their life that they’re going to have to handle, like I’ve handled in my experiences, good, bad or indifferent. I think I can be a great example of showing them, of giving them advice that they’ll need to be safe, or to have an incredible career in whatever profession they decide to go in.

Bill Clinton: (10:10)
Thank you for making that point. I think it’s important that people understand that. The best coaches don’t just coach their players when they’re on the court, or a field. They coach them when they’re off the court, and they think about their life after they’re out of their won-loss column.

Bill Clinton: (10:25)
Well, let me ask you something. I like to watch basketball. I like to watch women’s basketball, and I try to watch you and your team every time you’re on television. I’m very interested in how various coaches relate to their players, and relate to the crowd, relate to the referees, especially when they’re in tense situations. One of the things I’ve noticed about you is that you seem to be very careful and sparing about the times you jump up and down. I’ve seen you in games that are really tight, and the other coach is walking up and down the sidelines, and you’re just sitting there staring, looking at the players, trying to figure out what’s going on.

Bill Clinton: (11:05)
Is that deliberate? Do you have a deliberate style when you’re in the public eye about how you talk to your players, and how you’re seen by the audience, and by the referees, and by your own players, and by the other team, to be conducting yourself?

Dawn Staley: (11:21)
Well, I think what happens to me is I want to be my authentic self. I want to be my authentic self when I’m coaching. I want to be my authentic self when I’m off the floor and I’m talking to a young person. I think I have a way of being appropriate during appropriate times, but I’m myself. I want to sleep well at night knowing that I’m myself. So when I’m on the sidelines, I try to figure out what’s the pulse of the game.

Dawn Staley (11:48):
So, we want to, we want to pick the pace up, okay? We’re going to get out into the passion? lanes and don’t let them off the hook. Make them work for everything.

Dawn Staley: (11:55)
How are officials calling the game? What are my colleagues doing beside me? What’s the opponent, and the coaching staff, what does it look like? What is the crowd feeding off?

Speaker 5: (12:05)
There we go!

Dawn Staley: (12:06)
I look at my player’s eyes and I want to see that fire in their eyes. I want to see that they are locked into the task at hand.

Dawn Staley: (12:12)
Every opportunity you can grow, grow. Every opportunity you can lead, lead. Okay?

Dawn Staley: (12:20)
And then I take my place after seeing all those things.

Speaker 5: (12:23)
[inaudible]…If we can’t get it inside, skip it and take the three!

Dawn Staley: (12:30)
Sometimes I do get up and I talk to the officials. Sometimes I scream at them. Sometimes I say some things that I probably shouldn’t say, but it’s my authentic self.

Dawn Staley: (12:40)
I do sometimes sit down and just let the game come to me, trust our players, trust our players. I will tell you this, President Clinton, is that a lot of times when I’m yelling at officials and I’m self-assessing because this is what I do, if I’m yelling at officials about a certain call, I know for me the root of why I’m yelling at official is probably because I don’t trust my team in those instances, and I have to do a better job at trusting my team and putting that energy that I’ve given to the officials to my team.

Bill Clinton: (13:14)
How do you think basketball, women’s basketball particularly, is different from when you played in college? How is it changing? Where’s it going?

Dawn Staley: (13:23)
Well, women’s basketball is a lot different from… I’m not going to admit to this, it’s almost 30 years from when I played. And I know some of my old school buddies will beg to differ.

Dawn Staley: (13:38)
I think it’s better and here’s why. They’re quicker, they’re stronger, they are more skilled and they’re more skilled in all those things because of what they’ve been able to see. The WNBA I believe is starting their 23rd year, and when the little girls have seen 23 years of women play professionally, that’s the carrot that’s been dangling in front of them for all of their lives. When I was growing up, we only had the NBA, and that was a foregone conclusion that we weren’t going to be in the NBA. So I would give the new schoolers a edge on the old schoolers only because they’ve seen it.

Bill Clinton: (14:19)
I think the other thing is, I think the strength level of these players has expanded enormously.

Dawn Staley: (14:25)
Yeah. Because everybody has a trainer now. Some of them are taking care of their bodies a lot better because they want to play longer, they want to play as long as they can, and their careers have been extended because of that. The longevity of a WNBA career, it’s more years than previous, but it’s much harder to get into the WNBA nowadays because there are only 144 jobs. That’s not to say that there’s always 144 available because you have pros that have been in the game.

Dawn Staley: (14:58)
I would say, and I think I talked to a couple of GMs in the WNBA, there are only probably maybe 10 to 20 new jobs available, if that, for someone that’s leaving college and going into the WNBA. And that percentage is very low, so I try to extend that percentage to our players because everybody’s not going to be a professional athlete, so we got to get this degree. We got to learn how to navigate through life just in case, just in case it doesn’t work out on the professional basketball level.

Bill Clinton: (15:37)
Tell me about the Olympics. How did it affect your life? How was it different from all the other contests you were in?

Dawn Staley: (15:43)
The Olympic Games. Growing up in those same projects, I only saw women play two times on television. One was the NCAA final four, the women’s final four, and the other one was the Summer Olympic Games. And I wanted to do both. I wanted to be a national champion. I wanted to be a gold medalist.

Dawn Staley: (16:03)
So the Olympics and playing for USA basketball is basketball utopia. The culture of USA basketball, the friendships, the sisterhood that are created because we didn’t care and we don’t care who scores the most points, who gets the most rebounds. The one goal for us is to win basketball games, to do it together, and at the end of the two-week period of playing in the Olympic Games is that we’re standing on that podium and we’re receiving gold. Because it’s so much pressure to win gold, and we go into it knowing that it’s gold or failure.

Dawn Staley: (16:40)
So the Olympic Games, the USA basketball experience is what I model my coaching after. It is that. I know sometimes when you’re coaching at the collegiate level, there’s so many external people and things that get in the way of a player totally committing to that common goal. So the Olympics is a lot different, and I’ve coached for 19 years on the collegiate level. I don’t think that I’ve ever had a team that had that same type of culture. They’ve come close, but not the total culture of giving self to the team.

Bill Clinton: (17:21)
You went to Africa with me and group of people to see the Clinton Foundation’s work to help people get AIDS medication, to help farmers improve their yields, to do things, to build villages that are healthier, and get food that’s healthier. You agreed to represent in effect women’s basketball in going on that trip to Africa. And I’d just like to ask you, first of all, do you think it was worth your while, and what do you remember most about the trip we took together?

Dawn Staley: (17:50)
First, I don’t think I got a chance to say thank you. So thank you for that life-changing experience. I’m a better person because of that experience that I had. The people that I experienced it with were incredible, giving people, and I cried. This tough girl from North Philly cried on that trip.

Dawn Staley: (18:11)
But what I remember most about it, the hearing aids. I saw someone hear for the first time in their lives, and it just brought tears to my eyes. My heart opened for that person, for a deaf person to hear a voice. They repeated the words that the doctor was saying to them. Really was heart wrenching for me.

Bill Clinton: (18:33)
There are so many people around the world that are classified as deaf because they live in really poor countries who are capable of functioning normally if someone helps them. And I agree with you, man. Once you see somebody hear for the first time, it’s breathtaking. That was a session we did with one of our CGI partners, Starkey, which is basically giving a couple hundred hearing aids to people with difficulty hearing. A couple hundred thousand a year now.

Dawn Staley: (19:02)
You know, if it weren’t for your foundation, I don’t think there would be as many people living. I can remember we went into the hospitals and we saw people getting treated for AIDS. It was life-changing. I came back to the University of South Carolina, and our theme for that particular year was Be the Change. Be the Change. I shared with my players what be the change meant to me, and we went out into the community, and I hope we were able to impact some kids and being a change in their lives, in our lives because it was an incredible experience. When can we go back?

Bill Clinton: (19:40)
I’d love for you to go back with me. You have your own philanthropic effort appropriately named since we started the show with a story of your childhood, Innersole. Tell us about Innersole, and what does it do?

Dawn Staley: (19:55)
Innersole was birthed from a conversation I had one of our partners who was doing some spring cleaning, and she was going to throw away some new shoes that she had. And I was like, “No, no, don’t do that.” And I just kind of thought about my childhood, and I’m like, “We need to do something. We need to do something here in the state of South Carolina that will help you know.” Because it’s a lot of homelessness that’s here in the state of South Carolina.

Dawn Staley: (20:21)
I said, “We need to give out new sneakers to homeless children and children who are in need because I know what a new pair of sneakers did for me when I was growing up because sneakers were something that I really enjoyed, and that was the only thing that I love. I didn’t care what I looked like from my ankles up as long as I had a new pair of sneakers on.” And I know that resonates probably all across the country where if you feel like you have a new pair of sneakers on, you would pay attention a little bit more in class. It raises your self esteem. It makes you feel a lot better. It gives you so much confidence.

Dawn Staley: (20:56)
So what we’re doing now is we’re going into elementary schools and we’re implementing a new initiative called Educate My Sole, and Educate My Sole is an initiative that has about five variables. It is class attendance, it is behavior, it is reading, it is physical fitness, and getting good grades. We go into these elementary schools and we create a competition between all of third grade, all of fourth grade, and all of fifth grade. And they compete. So after each grading period, we find out what classroom scores are highest in those five variables, and we give them a new pair sneakers each grading period.

Dawn Staley: (21:37)
I just went to two today, and they open those bags up with those sneakers in it. And again, the smiles on their faces are quite incredible. So it’s a partnership that we have with certain schools throughout the state of South Carolina, and hopefully we can continue to grow all across this country. And then hopefully we’ll have some sneakers to take over to Africa or wherever the Clinton Foundation is servicing young people.

Bill Clinton: (22:04)
I thank you for joining us, Dawn.

Dawn Staley: (22:06)
Thank you. Thank you for your leadership. Thank you for making this young girl from North Philadelphia get a chance to speak to the 42nd President of the United States. Thank you so much.

Bill Clinton: (22:19)
All of you have been listening. You now know why I’m telling you this. Dawn Staley is one of the most impressive and admirable people I’ve had the honor to meet and really get to know since I left the White House.

Bill Clinton: (22:31)
One of the great blessings of these many years since I left office is that I’ve had a little more time to get to know people, takes trips with them, make friends with them, and I think she has done an unbelievable job as a coach not only on the court, but what’s more important to me, off the court and as a person.

Bill Clinton: (22:51)
Thanks for listening. For more, listen on Apple podcasts or wherever you listen to podcasts. In the meantime, learn more about our work to improve lives across the country and around the world at