LSU coach Kim Mulkey and a history of callousness

After LSU’s star forward Angel Reese missed her second straight game, her coach, Kim Mulkey, described her team as “like a family.” It was the language of manipulation, and just days before a traditional holiday feast, some people ate it up.

“I’m going to protect my players — always. They are like a family,” Mulkey said. “Those kids are like my children and I’m not going to tell you what you don’t need to know, and that’s just the way I address things.”

Some called Mulkey’s commentary “cryptic,” but, like her flashy fashion choices, her words were deliberate. Sure, the reasons why Reese has been absent from the floor the last four games are unclear, but one thing is for certain. Mulkey craves – and crudely commands – the spotlight.

With fans and media alike trying to make sense of the infighting among the defending national champion Lady Tigers while the coach remains mum, one question continues to bubble up to the surface. Why would anyone want to play for Kim Mulkey?

After LSU won the national championship earlier this year, queendom was in question. Reese asserted herself as the “Bayou Barbie,” and prosperity through selling name, image and likeness (NIL) rights soon followed. Who were the biggest stars in the Louisiana sky? Reese and her teammate Flau’jae Johnson flourished, and for a brief time, were more prominent than their accomplished coach. Reese’s $1.7 million NIL valuation has been used recently with the intent to discredit her, but no such rhetoric has followed Mulkey and her contract, which exceeds $30 million.

Neither LSU’s team – nor little else in college athletics – represents the ideal of family. That rosy conception cultivates an environment in which everyone can succeed. Some might look at LSU’s disarray behind the scenes and attribute it to the trappings of success. I attribute it to the nature of business, where cutthroat dealings are seen as necessary.

LSU head coach Kim Mulkey looks on during practice before the 2023 NCAA Women’s Final Four semifinal game at American Airlines Center on March 30 in Dallas.

Tom Pennington/Getty Images

Two years ago, the Harvard Business Review published a commentary about “The Toxic Effects Of Branding Your Workplace A ‘Family.’’’ The entirety of the read was compelling, but one particular phrase reminded me of college sports: “A power dynamic is created where employees get taken advantage of.”

At the head of women’s basketball in Tiger Country is a leader with a history of callousness. Before Reese was sent to the bench, there was the discarding of Brittney Griner – as a college player over her sexual preference and then her freedom as a professional.

“It was a recruiting thing,” said Griner about the reason why she couldn’t speak out publicly about her sexuality during her time at Baylor as a player for Mulkey. “The coaches thought that if it seemed like they condoned it, people wouldn’t let their kids come play for Baylor.”

Silence as consent was Mulkey’s code then, and it was also her mode of operation during Griner’s imprisonment in Russia. The coach’s refusal to speak up was heavily criticized including being called “cruel and evil” by women’s soccer icon Megan Rapinoe.

After LSU’s win over Southeastern Louisiana on Nov. 17, a noticeably sick Mulkey put her COVID politics on full display:

“I ain’t a sissy. I don’t have allergies,” Mulkey said. “I’ve got some kind of cold. It might be COVID, but I ain’t testing. It’s sinuses. I don’t know what you call it — allergies, flu, I don’t know. So, if y’all get the flu, blame me during Thanksgiving.”

There hasn’t been such a deliberate disregard of COVID protocols since Rudy Gobert was a member of the Utah Jazz. It’s a disconcerting level of privilege to think that COVID testing is beneath her, but this is a part of the Mulkey ethos. From the players to the professional journalists – how did Nicki Minaj put one of the refrains of “Did It On ‘Em”?

That’s right. “All these b—— is my sons.” Wait, let me clean that up. “Those kids are like my children.”

Baylor center Brittney Griner (left) and head coach Kim Mulkey (right) celebrate after defeating Notre Dame in the Division I Women’s Basketball Championship on April 3, 2012, at the Pepsi Center in Denver.

Jamie Schwaberow/NCAA Photos via Getty Images

We want to say that coaches with a history of cruelty, like Mulkey and the late Bob Knight, have a complicated history. “Complicated” is the word folks choose when they choose winning over decency and decorum.

Her conservatism, like her sequined outfits, are tailor-made for college athletics. Depending on one’s political preference, the tagline of “MAGA Mulkey” is seen as either a badge of honor or an indictment. However you feel about masking or medical testing, though, Mulkey’s disregard for the rules offers a perspective into a world that subjugates labor and exalts those in authority.

By definition, it’s sociopathy – a disregard for people’s well-being. This happens a lot in sports, but we disregard it because the currency that matters in competition is winning. Why would anyone want to play for Mulkey? Because she wins basketball games. This is the beginning of her third campaign in Baton Rouge, and she doesn’t have double-digit losses.

Because the path to the pros in women’s basketball is so narrow, coaches such as Mulkey are seen as a ticket to the promised land. Just last season, she had the top-ranked recruiting class in the sport, though some of the credit for LSU’s loaded roster should go to Reese.

What’s lost in the victories, however, is the damage done to young people. Aside from how she treated Griner, Mulkey also recklessly defended Baylor, her former school, in the midst of allegations of rampant sexual assault.

“If somebody’s around you and they ever say, ‘I will never send my daughter to Baylor,’ you knock them right in the face,” she said in 2017. Her comments later were even more insensitive: “I work here every day. I’m in the know. And I’m tired of hearing it. The problems that we have at Baylor are no different than the problems at any other school in America. Period. Move on. Find another story to write.”

That smirk on her face as she ended her press conference Nov. 20 hid an ugly truth – the system is designed to protect her, and she carries herself in that knowledge.

“This is college. This is college. This is college athletics,” she said. “No matter what the NIL, no matter what they do in [the] pros, this is college.”

She’s saying the quiet part out loud. The state pays her well to herd top-tier college athletes like cattle and control them as she sees fit.

Her behavior, often controversial, has been allowed for decades. Why in the world would she stop now?