Brittney Griner was a high-school basketball player who’d already been out for two years when she first told her soon-to-be college coach she was gay. She wondered if Kim Mulkey, head coach of the Lady Bears of Baptist-affiliated Baylor University, would mind she was lesbian.
“Big Girl, I don’t care what you are,” Griner recalls Mulkey saying in her new memoir, In My Skin. “You can be black, white, blue, purple, whatever. As long as you come here and do what you need to do and hoop, I don’t care.”
For the most part, Griner did what she needed to do in her four years at Baylor. The Houston native left as the all-time NCAA leader in blocked shots, a three-time AP All-American, and two-time national player of the year. She and fellow Texan Odyssey Sims led Baylor to the 2012 national title after a 40-and-0 season. This record is all the more astounding because it comes during a century when Connecticut has won eight of 15 national titles.
Griner was simply the most dominant force the women’s college game has ever seen. Now she’s on the cusp of breaking out in her second year of WNBA play. Most colleges would naturally tout their ties to Griner, but Baylor is not most colleges. The Waco, Texas-based university has one of the few powerhouse Division I athletic departments that officially discourages homosexuality. Baylor’s student handbook denounces all forms of sexuality outside of heterosexual marriage—including pre-marital straight sex and homosexuality of any kind. Now the fact that Baylor produced one of America’s most famous (and now outspoken) LGBTQ athletes imperils its future as a women’s basketball juggernaut.
After all, will emerging high-school stars who want to be the next Brittney Griner want to enroll at Baylor after listening to Griner talk about her alma mater? “I would love to be an ambassador for Baylor, to show my school pride, but it’s hard to do that,” she wrote. “I’ve spent too much of my life being made to feel like there’s something wrong with me. And no matter how much support I felt as a basketball player at Baylor, it still doesn’t erase all the pain I felt there.”
Griner chafed at not being able to kiss her girlfriend in a dark movie theater without having someone notify Mulkey, who then essentially told her she shouldn’t express her sexuality in public, according to In My Skin. She disliked being reminded that she had to keep “her business” behind closed doors. “The more I think about it, the more I feel like the people who run the school want it both ways: they want to keep the policy, so they can keep selling themselves as a Christian university, but they are more than happy to benefit from the success of their gay athletes. That is, as long as those gay athletes don’t talk about being gay,” she writes in the book.
The Brittney Griners in the next generation of high-school stars will almost certainly know about Baylor’s policy. Of course, there’s a chance they will still want to attend. Griner has plenty of praise for Mulkey, her coaching staff, and alumni to go along with the criticism—enough to state that if she had to choose all over again, she’d still go to Baylor. “There is no right side or wrong side when it comes to Kim and me, just a lot of complicated feelings,” Griner wrote. “I still love her. And I think she loves me.”
But as American culture evolves, and openly gay athletes become more commonplace, the chances diminish that future Griners will choose the headaches four years of partial closetedness would entail. Awkward, tense relations with a former superstar player isn’t a great selling point on the recruiting trail.
There are already signs that Baylor’s grip on top-level talent, especially Texas-born talent, may be slipping. None of the top six Texan players in the class of 2014 are Baylor bound. The news doesn’t get much better for Baylor in the class of 2015, either, according to ESPN.
Brittney Griner still has a lot of love for Baylor, just as many of its socially conservative alumni still love her. It’s simply that, in a perfect world, each side would like to see the other change in a major way. Indeed, earlier this month, Griner told ESPN’s Kate Fagan she believes Baylor’s stance on homosexuality “just needs to be taken away.” Either that goes—or Baylor loses its best shot at future national titles.