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Opinion Column
For the week of May 24 through May 30, 2000

Indiana’s Knight decision underscores twisted values

Commentary by ADAM TANOUS

For a great many people, sporting events provide a stage on which fantastic dramas play out…Sporting competitions resonate with us.

Bobby Knight, who has been the Indiana University basketball coach for the past 29 years, pulled off a victory last week that may have even astounded his fans. He managed to hold on to his $163,118 a year job after allegedly choking former player Neil Reed.

I say "allegedly" even though the entire 1997 episode was captured on videotape. The board investigating this incident and others could not determine if Knight actually "choked" Reed, only that he grabbed him by the neck.

For his part, Knight has to pay a $30,000 fine, will be suspended for the first three games of next season and must apologize for some of the alleged incidents. (It has been reported that Knight threatened the athletics department secretary, fought with a former assistant coach and attacked a former IU sports information director.)

Most people probably remember Knight hurling a chair across the basketball court during a televised game several years ago. So we know what is wrong with the guy: he has a bad temper. What I don’t understand is what is wrong with us? Why do we tolerate him?

The facile answer is that big money is involved. I think, however, that it is more complicated than that.

There are a great many professions where the stakes are extremely high. Take, for example, a CEO involved in a merger discussion with some other company. If one of his assistants were to say the wrong thing, would it be all right for the CEO to grab him by the throat and berate him?

The Mike Tyson saga is even more disheartening. As most people are aware, Tyson was convicted of rape in 1992. Fewer than five years later, he was standing before thousands of cheering fans ready to face Evander Holyfield for the heavyweight championship. That he could even get out of prison so quickly given the violent nature of the crime is absurd in itself.

But Tyson topped that act when the match wasn’t going his way by biting off Holyfield’s ear. Everyone was, of course, "outraged." His boxing license was revoked for "life." People called him an "animal."

Well, surprise surprise. In October of 1998, the Nevada Boxing Commission reinstated Tyson’s license. Then in December of 1999, Tyson pled no contest to assault charges resulting from a traffic incident. A month later, he was back in the ring, fans cheering wildly, as he faced Francois Botha. If you are curious as to who won, then you are missing the point.

Pick just about any sport these days and one will find outrageous behavior. In ice hockey, Marty McSorley took a full swing with his hockey stick at Donald Brashear’s head. Brashear ended up with a serious concussion. The response one often hears, that it is "part of the game," is not only ridiculous but ignorant.

In a magazine interview, John Rocker, a pitcher for the Atlanta Braves, made blatantly disparaging remarks about African-Americans, foreigners, and homosexuals. After a 28 day suspension, Rocker was cheered back onto the field.

Tonya Harding, Dennis Rodman, O.J. Simpson, the list goes on.

The standards of behavior in sports have been so distorted that even the fans have taken to idiocy. After a soccer match in Copenhagen last week between an English and a Turkish team, fans poured out of the bars brawling. Four people were stabbed, dozens injured, 64 arrested. In London, fans smashed the windows of Turkish businesses.

That there is bad behavior in sports is not terribly surprising. There is bad behavior everywhere in society. Certainly, the bad behavior seems to be getting more and more egregious. Perhaps the astronomic salaries do play some role. I suppose if someone paid me $4 million a year, I might start to believe I was worth it. It wouldn’t take long for a certain sense of invincibility to set in. And as soon as a person loses humility, he begins to stumble over his human nature.

What is more confounding is why we continue to forgive such ugly behavior. Why do we keep paying them huge salaries, continue to let them on television, continue to let them hold the spotlight on themselves?

Part of the answer may lie in the fact that our allegiance to sports figures seems to transcend celebrity. After all, even celebrities of the entertainment world come and go with the times. Sports "heroes" really are just that to many Americans. I think sports plays a bigger role in people’s lives than we realize.

For a great many people, sporting events provide a stage on which fantastic dramas play out. The pennant races, playoff games and basketball tournaments are, in an abstract sense, truly American stories. They are stories of winning and losing. Having a shot at winning is, in one regard, what America is all about. Consequently, sporting competitions resonate with us. They are especially poignant when the drama of our own lives may not be what we expected it to be.

Sports stars can provide a vicarious intensity and meaning to our lives if we let them. When an athlete excels for a gleaming moment, whether it be making the last second basket or catching the ball in the corner of the end zone, he or she showers us with an odd sense of pride. At that moment, a bond between fan and athlete is formed that is hard to break. Because of that bond, when great athletes do bad things we have a tendency to separate the human being from the performer. It is as if we want to believe that the mythological characters we create and watch on television could not possibly falter in the human realm.

We all want to believe in something. I think it is a deep truth about us. With leaders of government and religion stumbling around in search of direction and credibility, perhaps sports figures fill a little part of the gap. Nonetheless, our faith in the Mike Tyson’s, John Rocker’s and Bobby Knight’s of the world is misplaced. They happen to be guys with some talent, but that does not make a person whole. We need to broaden our vision of them. They are, in fact, people who live in the real world. Why shouldn’t we hold them to the same standards and values we instill in our children or that we pride ourselves on? To do otherwise is to cheapen everything real and lasting in our lives.


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