DAN WOLKEN

Kim Mulkey's silence on Brittney Griner embodies the deep cynicism of college sports | Opinion

Kim Mulkey, Brittney Griner's former college coach, seems either shockingly heartless or unimaginably vindictive for refusing to speak about Griner's imprisonment.

Dan Wolken
USA TODAY

College sports have made it easy for us to become skeptics. The administrators are overpaid, overmatched and aimless. Conferences devour each other like dinner after a day-long fast. Coaches and their agents have gamed the system to ensure unimaginable millions regardless of results. Even the athletes, who can now profit off their name, image and likeness, are more apt to treat relationships with their schools as transactions.

But even when whittled down to crass capitalism, there is supposed to be a fundamental value to the enterprise that goes beyond whether a coach’s contract got extended or an athlete performed well enough to get drafted. 

It doesn’t matter if it’s a one-and-done basketball player on campus for nine months or a walk-on long snapper who is just happy to be part of a team. When they eventually leave the cocoon, there is a profound and long-lasting dynamic between young person and coach that will either add value to the rest of their lives or make them forever cynical about the grown-up world they’re entering. 

The former represents the most aspirational part of college sports, something that will remain unshaken no matter how much money is pumped into the ecosystem. The latter can be distilled into the 14-second clip of current LSU and former Baylor women's basketball coach Kim Mulkey declining on Monday to say even a word about Brittney Griner’s imprisonment in Russia. 

“I just wanted to get your thoughts on Brittney Griner’s situation, and I don’t think I’ve seen anything from you on that,” Mulkey was asked at a regularly scheduled news conference.

“And you won’t,” she interrupted, steering the conversation to a regular basketball question even though Griner is the most consequential player Mulkey has coached in her entire career.

Former Baylor women's basketball coach Kim Mulkey hugs Brittney Griner after a Big 12 tournament game.

The reaction to that clip has been predictably strong, including from some of Mulkey’s former Baylor players. Mulkey’s decision not to comment has also stood in clear contrast to current Baylor coach Nicki Collen responding to the same question with a thoughtful, nearly five-minute monologue focusing on Griner’s humanity and emphasizing her importance to the school and the sport.

It is difficult to know exactly why Mulkey has said almost nothing about Griner's ongoing detainment for allegedly possessing vape cartridges with hashish oil, for which she was given a nine-year prison sentence by a Russian court. 

Though there was a period earlier this year when those close to Griner and the U.S. government discouraged a public campaign out of fear that it would increase her political value to the Russians, the Biden administration now considers her “wrongfully detained” and has attempted to engage their counterparts at the Kremlin on a prisoner swap. 

Since then, the world of women’s basketball has worked hard to keep Griner in the public consciousness, whether it’s wearing No. 42 jerseys at the WNBA All-Star game this year or South Carolina coach Dawn Staley sending a daily tweet reminding people how long she has been imprisoned.

MORE:Former Baylor players call out Kim Mulkey

MORE:Current Baylor coach Nicki Collen speaks on Brittney Griner

MORE:Brittney Griner appeals nine-year Russian prison sentence: What it means

Aside from one comment on the “Tiger Rag” podcast in June, in which Mulkey referred to it as a “personal issue” while saying she was praying for Griner and hoped she would come home safely, Mulkey has consistently refused opportunities to say anything about a player who led her 2012 Baylor team to a 40-0 national championship. 

The most obvious explanation for Mulkey’s unwillingness to engage on this issue stems from the deterioration of their relationship in 2013, when Griner said publicly that she had been pressured to keep her sexuality quiet while she was at Baylor.

“The more I think about it, the more I feel like the people who run the school want it both ways: They want to keep the policy, so they can keep selling themselves as a Christian university, but they are more than happy to benefit from the success of their gay athletes,” Griner wrote in her 2014 memoir. “That is, as long as those gay athletes don’t talk about being gay.”

Though Griner also wrote positive things about Mulkey as a coach, she characterized their relationship as complicated. In an interview with ESPN last December, Griner said they were no longer in contact.

There is, of course, nothing Mulkey could say that would meaningfully contribute to bringing Griner home or changing her awful reality in Russia. But the fact that she chooses to say nothing, when the right thing to say is so obvious, makes Mulkey seem either shockingly heartless or unimaginably vindictive. Whether she has issues with Griner’s sexuality, the things she said about their relationship or believes that she is being punished appropriately for an alleged crime, the clip of Mulkey waving off a reporter does not comport with the ethos that college sports packages and sells like a Hallmark card.

There are, of course, many coaches who treat their players as nothing more than vehicles to help them win championships and get contract extensions. But at least in most cases, it’s covered up in enough schmaltz to make the value of amateur sports seem plausible.

Whether she intended to or not, Mulkey has ripped that veneer away. Anyone who wants to play for her now knows the score: The minute you leave her program, your service to each other is done. It’s purely a transaction, and nearly all of the benefit is going in one direction. 

Griner did not individually make Mulkey’s career, but she undeniably elevated it to the point where Baylor basketball became one of the gold standard brands in women’s basketball. 

When Mulkey left for LSU, however, there were few, if any, tears shed in the Baylor athletic department. At a school that had come under significant scrutiny during a horrifying sexual assault scandal, the Baylor brand is much better today thanks to people like men’s basketball coach Scott Drew and football coach Dave Aranda, who have by all accounts found a way to achieve success while valuing their players as people. 

By that standard, Mulkey was no longer a fit. Collen may never win three national titles the way Mulkey did, but you’d be hard-pressed to find anyone at Baylor who would deny that they upgraded.

Despite all of college sports’ problems and endless commercialism, we can only take its mission to mold and advocate for young people seriously if those in charge truly believe their responsibility endures after the athletes they coach are useful to their ambitions.

It would be hard to fail that test as badly as Mulkey did this week.