Dawn Staley on Confederate flag, tragedy that led to March Madness return in South Carolina

COLUMBIA — No. 1 South Carolina women's basketball loves playing at home. The Gamecocks have won 43 straight games at Colonial Life Arena, and the senior class boasts a 60-1 career record there.

The team has thrived in-state too. South Carolina leads the nation in attendance, averaging nearly 13,000 fans per game, and its loyal following of "FAMS" led to record-high attendance at Bon Secours Wellness Arena in Greenville during the SEC Tournament. Though it was technically a neutral site, players said the championship game against Tennessee felt like a home crowd.

"I think there's a huge correlation with big attendance and wins," coach Dawn Staley said. "Our fans were ahead of this. They were ahead of their time. They started supporting us well before we were winning ... They made it look like a championship atmosphere before we actually started winning championships."

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While SEC opponents Tennessee and Ole Miss will play their Sweet 16 matchups in Seattle, the Gamecocks (34-0) will make the short trip roughly 100 miles northeast to face 4-seed UCLA (27-9) in Greenville on Saturday (2 p.m., ESPN). This will be the first time the state has hosted a women's NCAA Tournament game since 1997.

The long hiatus comes with a complicated history rooted in South Carolina's Confederate legacy. As Staley aims to become the first Black head coach in NCAA women's basketball history to win consecutive national championships, the Palmetto State is just eight years removed from the Confederate flag flying over the State House in Columbia.

When the NCAA banned South Carolina

From 2003-2015, the first two rounds of the NCAA women's basketball tournament were played at predetermined "neutral" sites — though hosting teams were allowed to play at home if they were selected to play at their own site. In 2014, UConn and Tennessee both hosted the first and second rounds as 1-seeds, and 1-seed Notre Dame hosted the regional rounds. South Carolina, the fourth 1-seed, had to travel to Seattle for the first two rounds and to Stanford for the Sweet 16.

In 2001, the NCAA imposed a ban on states that displayed the Confederate flag from hosting postseason events at predetermined sites, which impacted South Carolina and Mississippi. South Carolina hung the flag on the grounds of the State House until 2015, and Mississippi's former state flag included the Confederate flag in the upper left corner until it was redesigned in 2020. The Anti-Defamation League classifies the Confederate flag as a white supremacist hate symbol.

The SEC operated along similar lines: Greenville first hosted the conference tournament in 2005, but Georgia, Arkansas and Tennessee all hosted multiple times before it returned to Bon Secours Wellness Arena in 2017 and again this season.

"I took over the conference as its commissioner in June of 2015, and shortly thereafter ... I was asked about the state-sanctioned display of the Confederate battle flag," SEC commissioner Greg Sankey said. "I knew we had been here in 2005 and that issue had provoked controversy in 2005 ... and one of the reasons we weren't here between 2005 and 2017 was the display on the State (House). So fast forward to when the opportunity for change was presented, I said early on to our staff, we need to find a way to return to Greenville."

Staley took over as South Carolina's coach in 2008, and she wasn't aware of the flag att the State House when she accepted the job. She found out about it when she learned that opposing coaches were weaponizing the flag's presence in Columbia to recruit against the Gamecocks.

"We get that low sometimes (in recruiting)," Staley said with a laugh. "You have to answer those questions when they're brought to your attention, and I always answered with, 'That's not our history.' ... That flag was flying on the state capitol long before I got here, and I can't help that. What I can help you with is knowing that there have been no racial incidents since I've been in South Carolina with any of our players in 15 years. Other than the flag stuff with peacefully protesting the (American) flag, there really hasn't been any instances where our players felt like their lives were threatened or felt like they were in harm's way."

How the Confederate flag came down

Staley remembers when the flag came down in 2015, but the impact on her basketball team is barely a factor in those memories. Instead, it immediately brings to mind the horror of the Charleston church shooting, which precipitated former governor Nikki Haley's declaration for the flag's removal.

On June 17, 2015, 21-year-old white supremacist Dylann Roof opened fire during an evening Bible study at the Emmanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church in Charleston. The congregation is predominantly Black, and all nine people killed in the shooting were African-American.

"It took a tragedy for us to be allowed to do what we're doing. Thankfully Governor Haley did the right thing at the right time, because I don't think it would have gotten done any other time besides something that tragic," Staley said. "The real reason we're able to play and host and have a large crowd in the postseason is because somebody lost their lives."

Staley respected the NCAA's stand against the flag even though it hurt her team, and there was a relief in seeing the hate symbol finally come down.

"It was liberating for so many people because of what the flag represents," Staley said. "There were a whole lot of other people, Black people, that did not come on this campus ... because of the flag ... I just was happy, because the nine lives lost in Charleston weren't in vain."

Returning to the Palmetto State — then and now

The first time the Gamecocks hosted an NCAA Tournament game since 2002 was in 2015, just months before the flag was removed from the State House. After the 2014 season, the NCAA voted to change the tournament format to have the highest four seeds in each bracket host the opening rounds. Since those sites were not "pre-determined" by the NCAA, Colonial Life Arena was fair game if the team earned hosting rights.

South Carolina was a 1-seed in 2015 and brought in more than 10,000 fans for each of its first two games at home. However, the state had not hosted a regional prior to this season since 1997 when the rounds were played at Carolina Coliseum, the Gamecocks' former home gym before Colonial Life Arena was built.

Bon Secours Wellness Arena hosted the first and second rounds of the men's NCAA Tournament in 2017, and the state's racist history loomed over the event. A group of protesters flew the flag from a public parking garage overlooking the arena on the final day of second-round games, and several others carried flags across the street from the arena's main entrance.

Following the demonstration, Greenville enacted new regulations limiting displays in city parking garages citing safety concerns and the city's interest in "making sure that messages from third parties are not inadvertently attributed to the city."

There were no such protests during the SEC women's basketball tournament in February, but this will be the first time the city has held an NCAA Tournament since then. Still, Staley feels that the tournament's return to Greenville is a signal of progress in South Carolina.

"Anytime you can unify, like the people that came together in Greenville for our SEC Tournament, if you just pan the crowd you'll see how there's all walks of life cheering on one accord. It's unbelievable," Staley said. "I obviously think about why they're there. They're there because they're cheering us on, but there's a bigger why that we could somehow put down our differences to come together for two hours.'

This article originally appeared on Greenville News: Dawn Staley: South Carolina coach on Confederate flag, March Madness