Voices: Brittney Griner’s former coach Kim Mulkey doesn’t know what to say. I have some tips

Brittney Griner has been imprisoned in Russia for months  (ASSOCIATED PRESS)
Brittney Griner has been imprisoned in Russia for months (ASSOCIATED PRESS)
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One afternoon some years ago, a colleague approached my desk and mentioned that he had just met someone I knew at a get-together.

“I hope he dies,” I blurted out, startling the both of us. My co-worker backed away slowly as I attempted, in vain, to soften and give context to my outburst — the man at the get-together had irreparably damaged my mother’s personal and professional life and the hurt was still raw.

I understand what it’s like to dislike someone with a raging intensity. And I also understand the desire to keep one’s mouth shut about it, whether in the “If you don’t have anything nice to say…” vein or to avoid an inappropriate slip like mine.

This seems to be the situation Louisiana State University women’s basketball coach Kim Mulkey finds herself in. Mulkey has an acrimonious — some call it estranged — relationship with her former player, Brittney Griner, who played for Mulkey at Baylor University and led the team to an undefeated season and a national championship in 2012. And Mulkey has remained mum about Griner’s nearly eight-month-long detainment in Russian prison, even as the rest of women’s basketball has loudly mobilized to keep Griner’s name top of mind, pressing elected officials, including President Joe Biden, to bring her home.

Griner was arrested at a Moscow airport in February for allegedly carrying vape cartridges containing cannabis oil in her luggage, then convicted in August of drug possession and smuggling and sentenced to nine years in jail. The US State Department has declared her wrongfully detained.

Things got even weirder on Monday during a press conference when a reporter from The Daily Advertiser in Lafayette, LA, asked Mulkey for comment, adding that he didn’t think he had seen anything from Mulkey on the Griner situation.

“And you won’t,” Mulkey shot back before moving to another topic.

Mulkey’s defiant silence is a stunning response from a player’s former coach, regardless of their personal disdain for one another. The relationship took a nosedive after Griner graduated, publicly came out as gay to Sports Illustrated in 2013, and, in a subsequent article on ESPN, described an environment in which Baylor forbid homosexuality in its student handbook and Mulkey told her to keep silent about her identity.

Naturally, reporters will ask Mulkey about Griner again. And maybe next time, Mulkey, realizing how poorly a non-response reflects upon the program and potentially impacts her recruiting, will respond.

To help Mulkey prep, I’ve come up with some answers to the pesky Griner question that she might find palatable:

  • “I wish her a safe return home.” This one is short and sweet, and noncommittal.

  • “I pray for the safe return of any American held overseas.” This hits a couple of notes: it mixes in some flag-waving and some prayer, and it’s even more noncommittal than the first comment.

  • Obviously, I wish for any American to return home safely.” Feel like mixing in a dash of snark? Choose this one to shut down anyone who might question your intent.

  • “I imagine it’s difficult for her loved ones.” Note: you don’t have to specify who they are (like Griner’s wife, ack!), and you don’t have to include yourself in that list. Keep it vague.

  • “Actually, I did comment, and nothing has changed: I pray for Brittney’s safe return.” This one is particularly satisfying because it offers the chance to correct any reporter asking the question. Although she hasn’t issued an official statement, Mulkey did respond to a question on Tiger Rag radio in June by saying she doesn’t make public comments about it but prays for Griner and “I want her home safely.”

Of course, it’s also important for public figures to remember what not to say, so here are a few comments to avoid:

  • “I’m just focused on the upcoming season.” Probably not a productive comment.

  • “At least it’s better than wearing a mask.” While Mulkey famously tossed her “damn mask” in 2021 during her introduction as coach at LSU a few months after going viral for fussing awkwardly with her mask during the NCAA tournament, this is not an apples-to-apples comparison.

  • “Don’t ask me that. I don’t ask that. I don’t think it’s anybody’s business. Whoever you are. I don’t care to know that.” Oh wait. Mulkey used this one already in response to a question about whether she’s ever had a gay athlete on her team.

It’s tricky territory, navigating schadenfreude as a public figure. But with a little practice and a reminder that Griner’s in a life-or-death situation, hopefully Mulkey can find her way to offer her former player support — or at least safe travels.