There’s drama in the Bayou. Defending national champion LSU has been without All-American Angel Reese for the Tigers’ past two games and, as of Tuesday, head coach Kim Mulkey has declined to explain why. The lack of information and the online discourse has led to speculation about Reese and what’s going on inside the Tigers’ program.
Andscape writers Jerry Bembry, Mia Berry, Cayla Sweazie and Justin Tinsley gave their perspective on the biggest story in college basketball.
So … what do we make of what’s going on with LSU?
Cayla Sweazie: Lots of speculation but also a lot of uncertainty. People are using this opportunity to really slam Reese or push narratives that they have about her from last year. On social media, there has been an influx of negative comments towards Reese with no solid facts to back any of it up.
Mia Berry: For the second season in a row, Kim Mulkey’s refusal to answer media questions had engulfed her LSU team in another spectacle. Last year, it was the Brittney Griner saga where Mulkey dodged the questions about her former player’s imprisonment. This season Mulkey is following the same script refusing to answer questions about Reese.
LSU’s saga offers more questions and speculation than definitive answers. Why is women’s college basketball’s most recognized and outspoken player now silent? Why isn’t Mulkey doing more to protect her? What receipts do former players have? How did the reigning national champs fall from grace so quickly?
Judging from Mulkey’s terse responses, it doesn’t seem like it’s a GPA issue as speculated, but rather a discipline issue. Reese isn’t the first college kid to be disciplined. UConn’s Breanna Stewart was benched for performance by Geno Auriemma. BYU’s Brandon Davies was suspended for the remainder of a season for breaking an honor code. Notre Dame’s Kayla McBride couldn’t play in the second semester of a season for academic issues. Reese is just a casualty of Mulkey’s refusal to give a straight answer.
Jerry Bembry: What’s going on with LSU? We don’t know, and anybody who thinks that they do are just guessing. One could say, “well, why doesn’t Kim Mulkey tell everyone what’s going on?” But it may not be that easy because with FERPA (Family Educational Rights and Privacy Act), students and their parents have the right to not have issues publicly disclosed. That could be why Mulkey has been so vague.
So, with a combination of what looks like a suspension, along with the sniping and cryptic social media posts that include parents, former players and Reese, we’re left with a whole lot of speculation.
Justin Tinsley: What Jerry said, honestly. Unless you have someone inside the program with exact knowledge, then everything is speculation until Mulkey and Reese stop speaking in code. It’s impossible for me to make something out of this because I literally have the bare minimum of information.
I know it’s frustrating as hell for me because as journalists we’re conditioned to investigate. Reese has come under fire because she’s one of the most polarizing athletes in all of sports. A lot of which is beyond her control, and this outside insecurity of allowing Angel to be Angel. As for Mulkey, she’s one of the truly great coaches in the sport, and she could be acting with the purest of intentions for all we know. But she doesn’t exactly have the greatest track record in regards to public discourse around her star players. I’m obviously talking about Brittney Griner and their falling out long before Griner’s Russian incarceration.
If Reese is in the wrong by violating a program rule, she should be disciplined. If she isn’t, then that’s going to lead to headaches that could linger long beyond Thanksgiving.
What has stood out the most about the story to you?
Sweazie: The reaction Reese is getting on social media, without any context or certainty of the situation. People’s first instincts are to shame her. She is constantly being slammed in the media or compared to other female athletes.
Berry: The protection of Black female athletes is a never-ending conversation. Reese made headlines during the national championship for trash talking Iowa’s Caitlin Clark. Other Black female athletes vouched for her and praised her confidence and Black coaches like Ole Miss’ Yolett McPhee-McCuin and Arizona’s Adia Barnes offered support. After Reese missed her second full game, Mulkey’s said in her press conference she was, “protecting her player.” Mulkey’s idea of “protection” has done everything but protect Reese.
One can only imagine the mental toll online rumors and abuses have had on Reese’s psyche this early in the season. Watching the world that once built you up as being a phenomenal player and the future of the sport to now watching them tease and mock you with allegations of terrible grades and being a backstabbing teammate probably has to hurt more than Reese will publicly admit. Amid the hate of the media storm, South Carolina guard and SEC rival Raven Johnson notably showed her support. Black women shouldn’t have to shoulder the burden alone of protecting Black female athletes.
Although Mulkey might have pure intentions and truly believes she is doing her best to protect Reese, she should pivot her approach. In order to protect Reese she doesn’t have to give the full story, and I will agree with her we aren’t entitled to know the full details. A simple, “this isn’t academically related” or, “this is a private, team issue and she will miss X amount of games,” would suffice and quell the media storm.
Mulkey has been in the game for three decades and even she should know times have changed. A decade ago, this stance might’ve protected an athlete but in today’s day and age with the sensationalism of social media this approach does more harm than good.
Bembry: The amount of tension that exists within a program that just came off a national championship. It’s something we haven’t seen on the women’s side with recent women’s national championship teams of South Carolina, Stanford, Baylor, Notre Dame and UConn, and I can’t remember this existing among recent men’s champions.
So what’s changed?
And, perhaps the recent rise in NIL millionaires — and few have risen as suddenly and as high as Reese — might have played a role. Let me be clear that I don’t know this as a fact. But, within the LSU program one star has experienced a meteoric rise which may have overshadowed the contributions of others on the team that have been, in their own right, stars. Some might say that Jasmine Carson was the real MVP last year’s women’s championship game (she scored 21 points in the first half), yet she’s now barely mentioned for her contributions as Reese was named the MOP (Most Outstanding Player) of the 2023 tournament. And Reese, for the entire tournament, was LSU’s MOP.
Money changes everything. It dictated James Harden’s movements in the NBA, it led players to holdout and renegotiate deals after seeing another player sign, and it caused the breakup of teams (Stephon Marbury and Kevin Garnett’s breakup in Minnesota was over money).
Compensation for players is great. Just don’t be surprised that, with this newfound wealth, people get caught up in their feelings.
Tinsley: This is one of the really fascinating examples of what, from the outside looking in, a new age power struggle looks like in college sports. With Mulkey, she’s the unquestioned leader of the program. With Reese, she’s the face of the women’s game with a ton of pop cultural influence.
Mulkey isn’t budging an inch on her stance and isn’t speaking more than she already has. This has called into question just how much Mulkey is actually shielding her star player, or actually leaving her out to dry even more. All we’ve heard from Reese is a tweet saying don’t believe everything you read or hear. This did nothing but pour gasoline on an already lit fire. So on top of that power struggle we don’t necessarily have a clear road map on just how this — whatever this actually is — will be resolved (or how it really began, if we’re keeping it a buck). It could be tomorrow. It could be next month.
There have to be tense discussions going on within the program because a program without their best player isn’t the best program in the country regardless of what rankings say or what banners hang. LSU needs to resolve whatever this is … like yesterday.
What is something that people may be missing in this conversation, specifically about Reese or Mulkey?
Berry: Almost everything we know about this situation is speculative from Reese’s grades, parents’ cryptic social media posts, and former players’ subtweets. Nothing has been confirmed by LSU, Reese, or Mulkey. As Reese said on Twitter, “please don’t believe everything you read.”
It’s still early in the season for the Lady Tigers to regroup and focus on defending their time. It would be a shame if this LSU team filled with five potential WNBA first-round picks couldn’t repeat this season.
Bembry: That, hopefully, Mulkey and Reese are on the same page in their quest for one goal:
Win a national championship.
For Mulkey, winning equals job security and a financial windfall. She recently signed a 10-year, $36 million contract that made her the richest coach in women’s basketball.
For Reese, the higher her star shines the more she benefits financially. Reese’s NIL evaluation is $1.7 million, which puts her in the top 10 of all college athletes. Clearly she wants to continue her rise that has led to her getting sponsorship deals with some top companies as well as gracing the pages of some of the top publications. Playing at a high level will help accomplish that.
Whatever the issue is — and there is an issue — it’s best to nip it in the bud during the pre-conference season as opposed to let it fester and become a problem that puts the pursuit of a repeat national championship at risk.
Tinsley: Any time a team embarks on a championship, there will be tension and obstacles to overcome. Any time a team embarks on a championship repeat mission, there will be more tension and more obstacles — and you’ll have a bullseye on your back from every team in the entire country. LSU doesn’t have to create obstacles. They’re just going to come naturally. Unfortunately, this particular obstacle is internal.
My only hope is that the locker room stays together. This team is too good with too many incredible personalities to allow them to have a shot at some really rarefied historic air to implode from within. But we’ve seen that so often across sports. Hopefully, for LSU, this is far in the rear view come March, and not a cautionary tale.