Dawn Staley And C. Vivian Stringer Are Still Fighting For Financial Equity For Women

When Dawn Staley signed a historic seven-year, $22.4 million contract last fall to stay on as the head women’s basketball coach at South Carolina, to many in women’s sports, it was a sign of hope in an industry where there isn’t always a lot of it. Not only because it was a massive reward for what has been massive success in the program, but because it drew Staley’s salary even with the men’s head coach at the university.

During negotiations, Staley had to make the case to South Carolina leadership that she had achieved enough to deserve the deal. The accolades speak for themselves — a National Championship in 2017 and three Final Fours — but Staley struggled to find comparisons for her performance in the modern game.

“What is my market value?” she asked herself and the university. “I’m a Black woman, highly successful in my profession. There aren’t many Black women who are as successful as I am in this profession. There are only either white women or white men who have had the type of success or better. So what is my fair value? What is it? Where is it?”

While Staley stands impressively atop her sport today, nearly 30 years ago, another pioneer asked herself similar questions in a similar situation. A young coach named C. Vivian Stringer, on the heels of a 1993 Final Four appearance at the University of Iowa, agreed to an extension that pulled her equal to the men’s basketball coach at the time, Tom Davis.

“I’m so grateful of my brother, Tim, who was my representative at the time, who told me I had matched the same amount of money as (Davis),” says Stringer now. “It bothers me now to (think), have we gone backward?”

Telling the story this way, pay equity among women’s basketball coaches does seem to have lost its momentum. But the same can be said of the fight for equity in sport for women across time. Billie Jean King and the Original Nine took a stand for equal tournament payouts — then Venus Williams did the same. And just as Stringer and Staley sought salaries equal to their counterparts in the men’s game, Becky Hammon left the NBA last year to reset the market for WNBA head coach salaries. The U.S. Women’s National Team soccer stars have been fighting for equal pay for so long they may as well have their own chapter in this history.

Staley didn’t negotiate this new deal just for her bank account. She did it to “strike when the iron was hot” and take a leap forward in this fight rather than baby steps.

“It’s a long, drawn-out fight that will continue, but I hope that I lend a ray of hope to continue to fight and be able to risk it all,” she says. “That’s what it takes in order for you to have a groundbreaking headline. Because everybody puts the money up there. I want to put the fight (in the headline). It was a fight. That should be the headline.”

The USWNT settled last month for $24 million, but the deal does not include back pay for past players. We are approaching the anniversary of the TikTok from Oregon star Sedona Prince that blew open the economic disparity between the men’s and women’s NCAA Tournaments. A WNBA team last fall was reportedly fined half a million dollars for chartering flights for its players. The fight continues.

That’s why Staley, Stringer and a roster of women’s hoops stars that spans generations, are coming together for a new “Retire Inequality” campaign through TIAA that takes aim directly at one key ramification of the gendered disparities in sports and across American society.

The campaign includes the launch of a new, more stable and simple TIAA retirement account, a renewed emphasis on retirement in TIAA’s lobbying efforts, and keynote sponsorship by TIAA of the Women’s Sports Foundation Equity Project.

“We now know that women have 30 percent less money in retirement, and that will continue to lag and women can’t retire in the same way that men have been able to,” Stringer says.

Aside from this partnership, both Staley and Stringer, who is away from her job as head coach at Rutgers for the second straight season for personal reasons, say the best thing they can do is keep excelling and speaking out. As perhaps the most recognizable women’s basketball coach today, Staley is the leader that Stringer and others look to.

“I’m proud of Dawn. She’s making that and has made the case for herself,” Stringer says. “That will allow any female and any Black female to show the need to have equality in their pay. With that said, Dawn is the first person that steps up on this side of it, and it began some time ago. It sets the stage for us to close the gender gap, and I’m hoping that everybody that’s in control of women’s pay will realize that.”

With partners in this campaign like Prince and Dallas Wings star Arike Ogunbowale, TIAA is using a multi-generational outreach campaign and the 50th anniversary of Title IX to show how much work there is still to be done. Staley sits on Stringer’s shoulders; Ogunbowale sits on Staley’s. As has long been the case in women’s sports, even the most assertive advocates for equity in pay, working conditions, and respect know strength is in numbers.

Staley hopes her new contract can set a baseline for how excellence in coaching should be rewarded in women’s basketball, and become another domino toward true financial equity for women, from entry level to retirement.