As noted by ESPN’s Mechelle Voepel, six players on Baylor’s championship roster come from DFW Elite. Including four of five starters, Griner, Odyssey Sims, Kimetria Hayden, and Jordan Madden.
Mulkey is hardly the first coach to cultivate an AAU recruiting pipeline, and by itself that’s not illegal under NCAA rules. But let’s be clear: The violations at Baylor were not simply unintentional bookkeeping errors, but rather part of an overaggressive pattern and loss of self-restraint. And it looks an awful lot like what goes on in the men’s game. Granted, these aren’t offenses on the level of slush funds, but Mulkey gained a competitive advantage. A very good coach, Gail Goestenkors, recently resigned from the University of Texas in part because she couldn’t make recruiting inroads in-state, and lost too many players to Baylor.
It should be no consolation to Mulkey that her penalties are light. In a way, that’s the worst part. The NCAA accepted Baylor’s self-imposed punishment: Mulkey was stripped of two scholarships and forbidden from recruiting off campus this July. Which will hardly dissuade other coaches from employing the same tactics. What are a couple of lost scholarships and a month off the road compared with 40-0 and a national championship banner, with another one likely next season? The conclusion is that it’s entirely worth it to cheat.
This not to say the women’s game didn’t already have some impurities. There are plenty of infractions and improprieties. But for the most part the water is still drinkable. It would be nice to keep it that way, and not watch it become another toxic dump.
There is reason to think Mulkey is hurt and discomfited by the sanctions. She cuts a proud figure. “I believe strongly in following NCAA rules and will always try to do so in the future,” she said in a statement through the school.
In every other respect she’s been a credit to the sport, winner of a championship and an Olympic gold medal as a player at Louisiana Tech, winner of two more banners as a coach in 2005 and 2012, a superb teacher of an unprecedented talent in Griner, and the leader of a second wave of coaches seeking to build on the huge successes and commercial foundations laid down by my friend Pat Summitt at Tennessee and Geno Auriemma at Connecticut.
Anyone who cares about the women’s game wants Mulkey to become everything she should be: not just the next possessor of multiple banners, but preserver of what integrity the game still has. That means embracing a certain reality: She has extra responsibility to do things the right way. If we eventually look over our shoulders and ask when the women’s game went down the slippery slope, we’ll look at this day, the day the reigning national champion went on probation, as the starting point.
For Sally Jenkins’s previous columns, see washingtonpost.com/jenkins