Bob Knight is Key West; he is the shell on a hard-boiled egg; an outsider, Coach Knight lives a polar life. His unvarnished personality has proved motivational on occassion, but stirs the deepest depths of hatred in student-athletes, fans and media more often than not. Now, at age 72, he is still the maker of few friends and many enemies.
Knight’s character was revealed — warts and all — two decades ago when John Feinstein released Season on the Brink. His reputation precedes him. Sports fans know this and have come to expect it. His words are sharp and pointed. His voic is like a gravel road. Grace? Forget it. This is the behavior that draws a crowd, exactly what ESPN had in mind when they hired the former college basketball coach four years ago.
When the Poynter Review Project suggested Knight’s failure to mention former rival Kentucky and former team Indiana by name is “unprofessional behavior,” claiming he “went too far,” is fair criticism — and confirmation that Knight is still capable of getting under our collective skin. Media critics will claim he is irresponsible. Privately, ESPN will recognize their bet is paying off.
Hiring Knight was a gamble for ESPN, not for what he might open his mouth and say, but for what he might become: a tight-lipped former coach auditioning for another college job or a former college basketball coach, clinging to stay connected to the game he loves, offering soft analysis as the 72-year old fades into the twilight of his life. Instead, the network is getting what they’ve paid for, the same fiery college coach who drives his own car, in his own lane. Knight’s opinions are his own. The things he says are as controversial as the things he does not say.
This is what ESPN pays Coach Knight to do – despite ESPN officials claims. Knight may be labeled an “analyst” but truth be told he offers what old school broadcasting would call “color commentary.” His role is create controversy, a duty he performs without prompting. Anything less would be a bore. Could you imagine Knight playing the moderate? Please. He would be run out of ESPN on accusations of fraud.
Poynter would counter:
Analysts don’t necessarily have to be rigorously objective — as ESPN’s journalists do — but they do have to be fair, and professional in how they treat their subjects. Sports bonafides don’t preclude ESPN’s celebrity analysts from doing excellent work for viewers and readers; many of them do. But if that work is unfair or unprofessional, it besmirches the work of ESPN journalists who have to live by different rules.
The Poynter Review Project pointed directly to the response college basketball fans to Knight’s behavior, reporting:
“His failure to refer to the college basketball teams of Kentucky and Indiana by name is, quite frankly, childish and immature behavior that is reprehensible. That is pathetic, and it is just as pathetic that ESPN brass allow this farce to continue. I would like to know if ESPN still feels the positives of his employment continue to outweigh the potential damage to the college basketball arm of the ESPN brand.”
For that, ESPN breathes a sigh of relief, knowing their decision is paying dividends.