Indianas 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
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
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 dont understand is what is wrong with us? Why do we
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 wasnt going his way by
biting off Holyfields 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license was revoked for "life."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 Tysons 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
Brashears 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
wouldnt 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 peoples 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 Tysons, John Rockers and Bobby Knights 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 shouldnt 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.