Sports coaches love military allegories, so here is one for legendary LSU basketball coach Kim Mulkey: Leave no person behind. But that’s exactly what the three-time national champion did to Brittney Griner, a player who brought Mulkey to a national title when the coach was at Baylor. The superstar led Mulkey’s Baylor squad to a 40-0 regular season and championship in 2012.
For those living under a particularly thick piece of rock, Griner is in hell: serving a nine-year sentence in a Russian prison for the “crime” of allegedly having marijuana vape cartridges in her carry-on bag at the airport. (Surely Griner has bigger problems, but, suffice it to say, her prison cell is utterly unequipped for someone with a six-foot nine-inch frame.) Griner’s plight is made all the more fraught by the fact that she has become a pawn in the increasingly hot cold war between Russia and the United States.
The basketball world has increasingly voiced its support for Griner in the hope of building the kind of international outcry that might bring her home. But Mulkey has been silent. Griner is the most highly regarded star in the history of Mulkey’s program and was the sport’s number-one WNBA draft pick in 2013. No basketball player has been more associated with Baylor. And yet we hear crickets from Mulkey.
Finally, on media day, the 60-year-old coach was asked by Cory Diaz of the Daily Advertiser remarking that the world had not yet heard her feelings about Griner’s incarceration, and Mulkey swiftly answered the question by saying, “And you won’t,” before immediately looking among the scrum for another question.
Granted, the relationship between Griner and Mulkey has not been a smooth one. This butting of heads at least publicly commenced in 2013 when the WNBA-bound Griner—who was open and casual about being part of the LGBTQ community, in a manner that created space for other closeted LGBTQ athletes—said to Sports Illustrated that Mulkey told her that while playing at Baylor, she would have to keep her sexuality a secret.
Two of Mulkey’s former Baylor players took to social media to sharply criticize their old coach. Queen Egbo, a player on the team’s 2019 title team, said, “A player that built Baylor, 2 national titles, & a 40-0 record. Yet her former coach refuses to say anything or simply just show any kind of support. Keep that in mind when you’re choosing schools.”
Another player, free-agent guard and former WNBA second-rounder Chloe Jackson, wrote, “And I will say it again. SILENCE SPEAKS VOLUMES, smh.”
Second-year Baylor coach Nicki Collen could not have distinguished herself from Mulkey more, praising Griner as the person who made Baylor “a household name” and talking about a uniform retirement either in absentia or when Griner returns home. She also said, “Those that have been around me know I get pretty emotional. I think BG, first of all, is human first. I think this is a human rights issue. No one’s saying she didn’t make a mistake. None of us are perfect. But I guess I would wanna know if I did something and was stuck in a foreign country, what it was, what it wasn’t. I think we all know that 10 years is a long time. I see her as a mother, as a sister, as a spouse, as a daughter, as an unbelievable ambassador for the game of basketball.”
Mulkey’s non-reaction to Griner perhaps has far more to do with her politics than with any personal pique at Griner. Mulkey is a proud member of the Trumpy right wing. She has shown contempt for sexual assault victims on her old Baylor campus and callous disregard for the young people crushed under the weight of the many scandals inflicted upon the university during the tenure of the disgraced, and recently passed, school president Kenneth Starr. She now reflects this broader trend on the right of saying that Griner should not be a concern or seen as a political prisoner because—as they accept on face value—she was “smuggling drugs.” This position is riddled with racism, sexism, and homophobia. (If Jack Nicklaus were imprisoned, does anyone doubt that the right would be calling for World War III?) It is also just a flagrant disregard for Griner, her family’s pain, and her humanity. Even with Mulkey’s politics, it is shocking that she would shrug that off and not make at least make a gesture of solidarity. Her inability to do even that should be roundly condemned. Or as Stephanie Holland declared at The Root, “Literally, anything would have been better than what [Mulkey said]. Seriously, who wants their kids to play for this person?”