Tuesday, February 3, 2009

I Am Bobby, Hear Me Roar

Today's Indiana Daily Student sported a front-page story about the possibility that former Indiana University basketball coach Bob Knight might return to coaching. (Knight resigned last year from Texas Tech, where he'd coached for seven seasons, and became a sports analyst for ESPN.) Not, heaven forfend, at IU -- at the University of Georgia, which recently fired its head basketball coach. The article isn't even really news, it's just gossip:
ESPN commentator Dick Vitale said Monday he believes former IU men’s basketball coach Bob Knight is interested in coaching at Georgia, while former Hoosier basketball coach Dan Dakich said Knight would be good for any program.

No one at Georgia is saying if the school has interest in Knight. ...
There's less substance here than in the reports that Madonna has been seen around town with a hot young Brazilian model -- at least they've actually been seen in public together -- and just as little importance. Yeah, I know, it's a student newspaper. And I was touched, when all is said and done, by the loyalty of young sports journalists who were barely on the verge of puberty when Knight left IU in 2000, but who still find his every move, whim, and belch to be supremely newsworthy. Similar young writers also felt, last spring, that the hiring of new basketball coach Tom Crean was bigger news than Bill Clinton's visit to campus to campaign for Hillary. I notice that the IDS writers are aware, but dismissed on a technicality,* that Knight's record of 902 wins in his coaching career was broken by Northeast State's Don Meyer. No Division II upstart is going to take away the General's glory! Knight is still worshiped at IU as a living god, and if ever he returns to Bloomington, he will still find faith here.

Only one photo accompanied the article on the Daily Student website, showing Knight crouched "down in frustration" as though in prayer. On the front page of the print edition, though, there was a collection of images of the great man, including one with his trademark expression, his face distorted with rage. But I'm not being fair: it's a regular part of the iconography of sport to show coaches yelling angrily. (As I recall, Knight's first successor, Mike Davis, was even granted special dispensation as a coach to be an Angry Black Man, no small indulgence.) I wonder why. A politician, for example, must never allow himself (or herself) to be seen or shown with such an expression: Howard Dean didn't sound angry to me when he let out that yell that came to be known as "The Scream", and the corporate media used it to pulverize him. "Within a week, this smart, tough politician was reduced to a caricature; a red-faced, angry man whose ideology trumped his judgement," writes one political blogger. If Dean had been a college basketball coach, the media would have been slobbering at his feet. If he'd been an Angry White Republican Man, they'd have sought him out for interviews, as a harbinger of doom for the Democrats.

Putting sport first is of course a safe journalistic move in America. The victors of Sunday night's Superbowl, whoever they were, made the front page of the next day's New York Times, with a big color photo across the whole page above the fold. (Don't be fooled: everything I know about Knight's career since 2000 I learned from a few minutes with Google.) Why not fill up space on the front page with material that is of no importance whatsoever? Granted that America's owners prefer their fellow citizens to be ignorant and distracted, there's no inherent reason why the bulk of Americans can't follow sports while also informing themselves about things that matter; they just don't want to. So they confuse sports with politics and vice versa, and both of them with war -- Knight isn't known as The General for nothing. As one sports blogger wrote, if Knight hadn't made certain unfortunate moves (like his many tantrums, or moving to Texas for that matter), "He could run for Senator of Indiana and win in a landslide." Now, there's a scary thought, on a par with having Sarah Palin as Vice President.

*They referred to Knight as "the all-time winningest men’s major college coach with 902 victories" (emphasis mine); CNN's Sports Illustrated and other sports sites may recognize Meyer's record but true believers know better.