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Mulkey-Griner case not black, white
A storm of disapproving voices has descended on Baylor University the past few days, after star basketball player (and recent Baylor graduate) Brittney Griner said in an interview that her coach advised players to avoid being publicly open about their sexuality because of how it would impact the women’s basketball program.
If there is one central theme to these voices, it’s the oversimplified belief that Griner’s coach, Kim Mulkey, ought not direct players like Griner, who are lesbians, to remain in the closet while attending the private Baptist university.
The university lays out a pretty black-and-white view on sexuality in its student handbook: “Christian churches across the ages and around the world have affirmed purity in singleness and fidelity in marriage between a man and a woman as the biblical norm. Temptations to deviate from this norm include both heterosexual sex outside of marriage and homosexual behavior. It is thus expected that Baylor students will not participate in advocacy groups which promote understandings of sexuality that are contrary to biblical teaching.”
Here’s Mulkey’s problem: To be able to succeed in the American sporting world, you can’t operate in a world of black and white. You need to be able to operate in the grays. Mulkey faces conflicting demands. Mulkey is expected to uphold Baptist views on sexuality but also succeed on the court, where the plain truth is that many extremely talented female athletes are, like Griner, gay.
But in America, when a conservative religious institution like Baylor operates in anything other than in blacks and whites, it’s mocked as a place that doesn’t practice what it preaches.
To see what happens when a school takes the opposite tack as Mulkey’s “don’t ask, don’t tell” culture at the nation’s preeminent Baptist school, may I suggest looking west, to the men’s basketball program at the nation’s preeminent Mormon school.
During the 2010-11 basketball season, Brigham Young University’s men’s basketball team looked to have as good of a chance as the school has ever had of ending the nation’s longest streak of NCAA tournament appearances without making a Final Four (The school had been in 25 NCAA tournaments but never had made a Final Four).
On the shoulders of Jimmer Fredette, who led the nation in scoring and won every major player of the year award his senior year, the Cougars looked primed for a No. 1 seed in the NCAA tournament as the regular season wound down. On a nationally televised Saturday game in late February, the Cougars went on the road and beat conference rival San Diego State, then the fourth-ranked team in the nation, by 13 points. The Cougars, at 27-2, climbed to third in the national rankings.
Then the school’s black-and-white religious convictions got in the way of its sporting success.
Brandon Davies, the school’s sophomore starting forward, was averaging 11.1 points and a team-high 6.2 rebounds per game, a key part of the team’s game in the post. But on March 1, Davies was dismissed from the team for the remainder of the season for violating the school’s honor code — the part that prohibits premarital sex.
The school was as much mocked for adhering to its strict honor code as applauded for sticking to its guns when it had to choose between ethics and sporting success (Some thought race played as big of a role in Davies’ punishment as the honor code violation, as Deadspin convincingly argued).
Guess what happened? The team fell apart on the court. The next game, BYU lost at home by 22 points to unranked New Mexico. Without Davies, the best shot BYU has ever had at making a Final Four went up in smoke and the team stumbled to a 5-3 finish and lost in the Sweet 16.
Whether you believed in BYU’s prohibition on premarital sex or not, there’s no denying it’s a strong conviction. And strong convictions require strong guts, especially when the choice between sporting glory and remaining true to your convictions is so stark.
BYU showed guts.
But does that mean Baylor didn’t?
Did Kim Mulkey fail when she allowed the women’s basketball program to operate in a gray moral area at a supposedly black-and-white Baptist school?
No. She simply did what we always do in America: pose with a black-and-white moral code while doing what it takes to win.
Even if that means going against what we say we espouse.
Do you think there’s a football player at Notre Dame who doesn’t follow Catholic teachings on premarital sex or contraception? Do you think there’s a slugger on your favorite Major League Baseball team who has used performance-enhancing drugs? Do you think plenty of America’s bleeding-heart liberals are horrified at climate change, but change their minds on gas-guzzling SUVs or spacious suburban homes once that third kid comes along?
Does the fact that the coach of a Baptist university’s women’s basketball team knew at least one of her players was a lesbian and asked her to not make a big deal of it make Kim Mulkey a hypocrite?
No. In America, the way BYU reacted to the Brandon Davies situation is the exception. It’s a black-and-white philosophy that’s actually carried out. Mulkey’s blind-eye policy at Baylor is the rule. She’s the same as the rest of us: Her brand is printed in black and white, but her real world operates in a whole lot of grays.
Follow Reid Forgrave on Twitter @reidforgrave or email him at ReidForgrave@gmail.com.
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