Baylor University’s head women’s basketball coach, Nicki Collen, was loud and clear Sept. 26 about her support for Brittney Griner, the former Bears and WNBA superstar currently serving a nine-year sentence in Russia on a questionable drug charge.
“BG, first of all, is human and I think this is a human rights issue. No one is saying she didn’t make a mistake. None of us are perfect,” Collen said during a media availability marking the team’s first practice of the season.
“I think BG’s family. She’s Baylor family. So to me, anything we can do to help her and her family is important.”
Griner was arrested by Russian authorities in March for allegedly trying to bring a small amount of marijuana oil into the country, where she plays basketball during the WNBA offseason. After a trial, she pleaded guilty and was sentenced to incarceration in a penal colony.
But her allies and fans say Baylor and its influential network have not done or said nearly enough, namely former Baylor head coach Kim Mulkey, and the university itself.
Mulkey, who had a well-documented falling out with Griner when both were at Baylor, doubled down on her decision not to speak publicly about Griner, the Lafayette Daily Advertiser reported Sept. 26.
That decision riled up former Baylor players already angry at Mulkey, who now is head women’s basketball coach at LSU.
“And I will say it again. SILENCE SPEAKS VOLUMES,” former Bear Chloe Jackson tweeted the same day.
Baylor alumnus and WNBA player Queen Egbo fired a tweet at Mulkey for not having a former player’s back: “A player that built Baylor, 2 (final fours), & 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,” Egbo said.
Yahoo Sports reported that the support for Griner — and criticism of Mulkey — go far beyond just Baylor: “Mulkey’s silence on Griner’s detainment and recent sentencing has been noted widely in college basketball circles. The basketball world has spoken out about the situation at each major moment, including last month, when she was convicted and sentenced. Most have at least said they hope Griner is safe and able to come home to the U.S. soon.”
Baylor University has been a target of criticism “for its scant comments” about Griner, Yahoo Sports reported. “After Griner’s (August) conviction, it issued a statement to Just Women’s Sports, a stark contrast to entities that released statements on their own social accounts.”
Yahoo Sports quoted the statement: “With the unsettling news of the verdict and sentencing of Brittney Griner, we continue to pray for her ongoing strength and safety throughout her detainment. We recognize the extraordinary complexity of this situation, yet we remain hopeful of the day she will again set foot on U.S. ground.”
Baylor released a statement Sept. 27 in response to a request by Baptist News Global. “Brittney Griner is and always will be a member of the Baylor Family. We remain deeply concerned for her health, safety and well-being. Throughout her detainment, high-ranking Baylor officials have been in contact with those close to Brittney, as well as with appropriate elected and government officials. In addition, on several occasions Baylor has expressed public support for Brittney on social media.”
One of those social media posts came in March when Griner was arrested.
“The news of Brittney’s detainment is obviously very alarming, and our thoughts and prayers are with BG and her family,” said the Baylor statement tweeted by KCEN sports anchor and reporter Matt Lively March 5. “Right now, our foremost concern is for her safety and well-being during this difficult time in Russia and her eventual safe return to the United States.”
Using the hashtag #BringBrittneyHome, Baylor Athletics tweeted a statement of solidarity with Griner on July 8. “It’s been more than 140 days since Brittney Griner was wrongfully detained in Russia. The Baylor Family stands with Brittney, and it’s time to bring her home.”
That tweet occurred four days after BNG published an opinion piece questioning why Baylor wasn’t saying more in support of Griner.
The story of this American citizen’s mistreatment in Russia connects to deeper social forces and entrenched attitudes at work. Griner not only is Black, she is gay.
Griner came out just ahead of the 2013 WNBA draft in which the 6-foot, 8-inch phenom was selected by the Phoenix Mercury.
Her personal news wasn’t warmly embraced by many at Baylor, NPR reported in 2014.
“Griner came out as a lesbian while playing at Baylor University in Texas. There, she was a much beloved star, but Griner had no idea her school had a policy against homosexuality until her coach urged her to keep quiet about it,” NPR reported.
As BNG previously reported, Baylor leaders are walking a fine line trying to appease some conservative pastors in the state who believe being gay is a sin while also maintaining status as a top-tier academic research university.
Some of those seemingly unconcerned about Griner’s treatment in Russia include conservatives still fuming over her decision to protest the playing of the National Anthem during the 2020 WNBA season.
“I honestly feel we should not play the National Anthem during our season,” Griner said in an article published by the Arizona Republic in a summer marked by racial protests over the police killing of George Floyd. “I think we should take that much of a stand.”
But Griner’s history of protest is no reason to be opposed to the Olympian attaining her freedom, Coach Collen said.
“We can argue about kneeling, or not kneeling, all day long. Brittney Griner has worn that USA across her chest and earned 11 gold medals for this country. She has represented Baylor. … She made Baylor a household name,” Collen said. “As a Christian, my job is to give grace, it’s to love another and knowing BG and being around her, she’s a big kid. To know her is to love her. She just is one of those people that radiates joy and would give you a high five or a hug.”
Also, Collen said the sentence Griner received does not fit the crime she was accused of committing — bringing hashish oil into Russia for medicinal reasons.
“I think we all know that that 10 years is a long time, and I just see her as a mother, as a sister, as a spouse, as a daughter, as an unbelievable ambassador for the game of basketball,” the Baylor coach said.
Why aren’t we defending Brittney Griner? | Opinion by Rodney Kennedy