IU chokes, but years after the fact

May 16, 2000|By Ken Rosenthal

Indiana University president Myles Brand said there is a "profound good side" to Bob Knight, and now we know what it is. Knight can choke players, curse secretaries, throw vases at walls, verbally abuse his athletic director. But after an "exhaustive" seven-week investigation, IU couldn't determine if the soiled toilet paper incident occurred, to the relief of Hoosiers fans everywhere.

Now, the average person might find it outrageous that Indiana didn't fire Knight yesterday. But in the morally corrupt world of sports -- pro and college -- no one should be surprised by the university's decision to allow Knight to remain men's basketball coach under a zero-tolerance policy.

How could Brand and the IU trustees continue to back Knight? The better question is, how could they not? It's not as if the university was unaware of Knight's boorish conduct, which dates back a quarter-century. It's just that if Knight deserved to be fired yesterday, then he deserved to be fired years ago. And Brand and the trustees weren't about to admit the extent of their negligence.

It was almost comical hearing Brand talk tough, fining Knight $30,000, suspending him three games, saying he must treat the media better than locker room fungus -- or else! But in truth, yesterday's news conference was a sad commentary on our misplaced priorities, our eroding standards of decency and most of all, our blind support of the home team.

Knight suffers from SDD -- Sensitivity-Deficit Disorder. Nothing was shocking about the latest allegations against him. What was shocking is that a supposed institution of higher learning would cower before him the way frightened children cower before a playground bully.

Now Knight is ready to apologize? He punched a policeman in Puerto Rico in 1979. He threw a chair across the court in '85. He appeared to kick his own son in '93. And, in the act that triggered the IU investigation, he choked former player Neil Reed for 2.3 seconds during a practice in '97, according to a videotape analysis.

Brand and the trustees, however, can't be held solely responsible for ignoring Knight's misdeeds. They acted now only because their dirty little secret was out, and the national scrutiny was intense. But they never would have bothered protecting Knight all these years if that wasn't the desire of Indiana fans and alumni.

Think back to 1988, when Knight told NBC, "I think that if rape is inevitable, relax and enjoy it." Thomas Ehrlich, the former president at IU, endured a wicked backlash from fans after he publicly criticized Knight. Over the final five years of his presidency, Ehrlich never publicly confronted Knight again.

In a perfect world, such pressure should not have prevented Brand from standing up to Knight. But the reality at IU -- and many other Division I institutions -- is that a successful football or men's basketball coach wields more power than the university president. And for that, the Myles Brands of the world aren't to blame.

In city after city, state after state, fans are too forgiving of aberrant behavior from sports figures. Worse, they frequently rally around players, coaches and even owners who commit misdeeds, rationalizing even the most detestable acts, and claiming that the outside world doesn't understand.

Baltimore went through this twice in recent years, first with the theft of the Browns, then with the Roberto Alomar spitting incident. It was not unreasonable to argue that both acts were provoked (the city of Cleveland alienated Art Modell and the NFL rejected Baltimore in expansion; umpire John Hirschbeck cursed Alomar). But taken on the surface, both acts were indefensible.

Ray Lewis could be the next to be forgiven, if he is found not guilty of double murder in Atlanta. There is much to suggest that Lewis would deserve less than a standing ovation if he returns to the Ravens, regardless of the verdict. But many fans don't want to hear it. They just want to see Lewis make tackles, and the Ravens win games.

Lewis is on an entirely different level from Knight, who was never charged with a crime (at least not in this country), never made a sexually explicit mail-order video, never associated with convicted felons. But the roots of the same dynamic already are in place. Leave him alone. He's not what you think. You don't understand.

Knight's exalted status in Indiana amounts to almost a case study in such groupthink -- "he graduates his players!" his supporters say, as if that excuses choking them. In fact, the reverence for Knight is so ingrained, his backers seem to overlook the fact that he isn't a great coach anymore. Knight won national championships in 1976, '81 and '87. But he hasn't even reached the Sweet 16 since '94.

Where does it all end? Well, Knight is down to his last tantrum, sort of like a 5-year-old who is threatened with "time out." Only problem is, Knight has been at Indiana 29 years now. It's inconceivable a parent would wait that long to instill discipline. But Indiana created a monster, spoiled rotten.

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