The men’s and women’s Final Four tournaments are here at last, which means it’s time for a slew of misguided redemption narratives to be launched at the media. So it’s worth remembering that success in basketball — or in any sport, for that matter — cannot redeem an athlete or a coach or a team or a university from off-court transgressions, particularly when those transgressions involve the systemic enabling of sexual assault over years.
Baylor women’s basketball head coach Kim Mulkey didn’t get this memo.
On Monday night in Greensboro, North Carolina — after her team destroyed Iowa to book a spot in the Final Four for the first time since 2012, when Baylor won the second of its two national titles — Mulkey immediately turned the conversation to her school’s reputation.
“I am so happy for those seniors. I am so happy for those players, and I’m happy for Baylor University,” Mulkey told reporters. “I’m happy for Baylor University. Plaster that on the front page of every national newspaper. It doesn’t get any more positive than this.”
Baylor’s need for positive press stems from the fact that the school has been embroiled in an extensive sexual assault scandal, primarily involving members of the football program, which led to the ouster of former Baylor football coach Art Briles, former Baylor athletic director Ian McCaw, and former Baylor president Ken Starr.
If Mulkey’s comments in Greensboro left any questions as to what specifically she was referencing, she kindly expanded upon those thoughts later in the week.
“Back in 2005, we went through a lot at our university the previous year. We were the shining light of Baylor University, if you will remember. That was the big theme, is that women’s basketball quickly erased a lot of the negative,” Mulkey told reporters at the Final Four. “We certainly have been through some negatives here the last couple of years. I’d have to think this is a positive that will help a lot of people heal.”
The “a lot” from 15 years ago that Mulkey was referring to at the top of that quote? Well, in 2003, Baylor men’s basketball player Patrick Dennehy was murdered by his teammate, Carlton Dotson. An NCAA investigation following Dennehy’s murder unveiled a slew of recruiting violations, cover ups, and drug abuse in the program. So, indeed: it was “a lot.”
But the 2005 national title the women’s basketball team earned that year did not help the school heal from the trauma that preceded it, and a 2019 title will not in any way erase the sexual assault scandal that has engulfed Baylor’s athletic department over the past few years.
This isn’t just a problem that Baylor has trouble grasping, though.
This week, Michigan State men’s basketball head coach Tom Izzo told the Associated Press that this Final Four berth was a way to help the Spartan community move past the struggles it has experienced over the past few years.
“I think because we’ve been through a lot here, part of the process of people just expressing the platform we have and what it can do in a positive way,” Izzo told the Associated Press this week. “And if I can be a small part of that, that’s as good as it gets.”
As you might recall, the MSU campus is where former gymnastics doctor Larry Nassar had an office for decades, from which he sexually abused hundreds of patients — many of them MSU student athletes — under the guise of medical treatment. Additionally, an ESPN report last year revealed that there were more cover-ups of sexual assault throughout MSU, including in the football and basketball programs. (Izzo has repeatedly denied the allegations against the basketball program, and stood up for the administration within the athletic department and at the university as a whole.)
Izzo has regularly painted men’s basketball as part of the school’s redemption arc. In January, he said that ESPN’s College GameDay coming to Lansing and broadcasting a MSU men’s basketball game was part of the “healing process.”
It might be tempting to downplay how dangerous these narratives are — after all, shouldn’t sports be a way to bring people together and focus on the good? But the problem is, at both Baylor and MSU, the idolization and deification of sports were part of the same problem that allowed these sexual assault scandals to go unchecked for so long. Pretending this same deification helps to enable the healing process is really just restarting the cycle, and gracing over the hard work that still needs to be done on the ground.
That doesn’t mean fans can’t root for those teams, or that there aren’t wonderful individual stories to be told on both teams. And it doesn’t mean that it’s impossible to see a true story of vindication on court this weekend, either.
The University of Virginia is in its first ever men’s Final Four, a year after being the first No. 1 seed to lose in the first round of the NCAA tournament. That’s a basketball redemption story, pure and simple.