The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Kim Mulkey owes Brittney Griner more than contempt

Kim Mulkey is now the coach at LSU. (Mark Humphrey/AP)

Kim Mulkey said nothing. The greatest basketball player she has ever coached sits in a Russian prison, “wrongfully detained,” according to the U.S. government, serving the first months of an excessive 9½-year sentence for bringing less than a gram of cannabis oil into the country. Brittney Griner isn’t being punished as much as she is being weaponized. Most of the American sports community is on edge. Not Mulkey. She would rather be petty.

On the 221st day of Griner’s detainment, a reporter asked Mulkey, now the coach at LSU, about Griner. The two have had a strained relationship since Griner left Baylor, but some things are supposed to be bigger than feuds. On Monday, Mulkey chose to remain small.

“I just want to get your thoughts on the Brittney Griner situation,” the reporter said. “I don’t think I’ve seen anything from you on that and just …”

“And you won’t,” Mulkey replied.

She said nothing.

And it said everything.

After months of silence, that was all Mulkey offered. If you had a microscope, you wouldn’t have been able to detect any decency.

In all my years of covering the emotional, confrontational and sometimes crude world of sports, I’ve never encountered such a disturbingly bitter moment. I’ve seen angrier incidents. I’ve seen violence. But it’s reprehensible for a coach — a college coach who recruits teenagers with promises of familial relationships and lifelong bonds — to reject one of her own amid dire circumstances.

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Mulkey ignored an opportunity to show basic, superficial compassion. It took more effort to be terse and dismissive than it would have to offer something this simple: “I hope she gets home soon. I don’t want to comment any further, but that’s my hope.”

It was no time to persist with the petty. But like many lionized college coaches, Mulkey cannot contain her narcissism. She was too busy thinking about herself to meet the moment. It seems Mulkey is still upset that Griner, after saying she was gay before the 2013 WNBA draft, revealed Baylor had told her to keep her sexuality a secret. She wrote more about Mulkey and the school in her 2014 memoir “In My Skin.” She intended for that part of her story to illustrate her struggles with identity while attending a private Baptist school in Texas. Mulkey did not like how she and her program’s culture were portrayed. The two never made amends.

In 2012, when Baylor won the national championship with a 40-0 record, Mulkey called Griner “the face of women’s basketball.” In the 10 years since, Griner has had a stellar professional career and enhanced her reputation as one of the most dominant post players in the sport’s history. Mulkey has 658 career victories, an .857 winning percentage and three national titles. She is in the second year of a $23.6 million contract at LSU, a milestone deal in the ongoing fight for fair pay in women’s sports.

Griner and Mulkey were magical together. They had remained outstanding apart. And then Griner was arrested for a mistake that many athletes playing overseas and trying to manage pain and inflammation could have made. Her freedom has turned into a political custody battle between feuding nations.

Dawn Staley, who was Griner’s coach with USA Basketball, doesn’t let a day pass without sending a social media message or doing a media interview about freeing Griner. On the same day Mulkey punted on humanity, current Baylor coach Nicki Collen talked for almost five straight minutes about Griner. Collen spent most of the time pleading with people who have discarded Griner as a criminal and failed to think about the global dynamics at play. And in the most subtle way, Collen alluded to the intolerance and prejudice behind some of the public dismissal of a 6-foot-9 Black gay woman.

“It’s not my job to judge, quite frankly,” Collen said. “I don’t see it as my job. I think as a Christian, it’s to give grace. It’s to love, to love one another. Knowing BG, like knowing her, being around her, she’s a big kid. To know her is to love her. Honestly, she just is one of those people that radiates joy, that would give you a high-five or a hug. It’s so easy to say when it’s someone you don’t know, but would everyone be saying the same thing if it was their sister? I think they might feel differently.”

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For four years, Griner wasn’t just any big kid to Mulkey. She was her big kid, a celebrated all-American, the best player in the nation. One disagreement shouldn’t ruin that — unless the relationship was phony and transactional from the beginning. While Griner isn’t blameless in their beef, Mulkey is the 60-year-old who earns a living teaching young people to manage conflict and work together. Before she retires, she may win 1,000 games preaching harmony. But given a chance to transcend discord and show sincere empathy, she acted worse than a spoiled freshman away from home for the first time.

“Keep that in mind when you’re choosing schools,” former Baylor star Queen Egbo wrote in a tweet.

Said Chloe Jackson, another former Baylor player: “And I will say it again. SILENCE SPEAKS VOLUMES, smh.”

If Mulkey was too emotionally conflicted to express herself, she ought to step to a microphone and try again. Try harder. Articulate anything that makes her human and not a revenge-seeking control freak.

Mulkey isn’t the first coach to grow distant from a star athlete. But difficult times are supposed to unite people, assuming what they shared was real. The player who delivered Mulkey a second championship needs all the support she can get. If her former coach cannot rise to this occasion, she has no credibility as a leader.