On initial examination, any ethical consideration concerning the dismissal of Bobby Knight as Indiana University’s basketball coach is a slam dunk.
His tantrums, tirades and out-of-control antics caused irritation. In his tenure, he was a self-centered monster who somehow existed above normal parameters.
Possibly for too long, Indiana officials looked the other way concerning some of his most volatile antics. Could it be that his ultimate removal was hastened by a series of major failures in the NCAA tournament by his team? Would more NCAA tournament wins have translated to a longer tenure?
Knight, often defiant under authority or questioning, finally pushed the envelope too far. It may have been angering to many that he said he did not understand the zero-tolerance policy he was placed under. Yet the policy wasn’t a hard one to understand.
Knight’s flaws were figuratively protruding and sharp. Yet, put down the stones.
Here was a coach who was highly respected among his peers as one of the most ethical in the game. He won much more than he lost, didn’t cheat to do it and graduated an amazing percentage of his athletes.
He had a serious personality flaw, you say? Again, careful with those stones.
The Bible features several people with volatile, sometimes abrasive, personalities. Possibly the most prominent of those is the Apostle Paul, who at times angered friends and enemies alike by his discipline, his intensity and sometimes arrogant adherence to his beliefs and principles.
For example, Paul had a sharp falling-out with his first great missionary partner, Barnabas. One of their disagreements was over John Mark. From Paul’s perspective, John Mark had let them down and deserted them on a journey.
When we examine Paul’s personality as it is presented to us in the Bible and by theologians, it is not hard to imagine Paul becoming angry at young Mark’s inability to stay on task, angrily confronting him and trying to shake some theological sense into him. It is also easy to imagine a more empathetic cousin Barnabas confronting Paul about his behavior.
So before tearing down Bobby Knight, we should look at the glass house that produced him. To gain perspective on Bobby Knight, it seems necessary to understand the historical and ethical context that shaped him.
Knight is an admirer of historical military leaders who had strict values, defying authority to impose those values for the greater good. In a different era, those leaders and their attitudes were admired.
There were Bobby Knights at Normandy, in eastern Europe and in the South Pacific during World War II. Some of those have been hailed as “The Greatest Generation.”
These heroes of another generation acquired nicknames like “Bull” and “Bear” and “Bulldog.” We put them on a pedestal, often worshipping them as saviors of democracy, freedom and our way of life.
Some of the people mentored and influenced by these leaders became teachers, coaches and leaders in our communities. People saluted them as disciplinarians, role models and examples of the backbone and resolve of America.
Particularly with the intense uncertainty of the Cold War, physical discipline was part of the culture of training. Athletes were led to believe this training had always made America great. These actions, shocking now, were considered necessary for character-building.
The offense that ultimately led to Knight’s dismissal–dressing down a student for not showing respect to an authority figure–would have been applauded and saluted in another era.
Sure, Bobby Knight was not saintly and had his share of flaws. But was he terribly out of control, or terribly out of context?
He’s probably both.
David McCollum is sports columnist for the Conway Log Cabin Democrat. He is a member of Second Baptist Church, Little Rock, Arkansas.