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Triumph and temptation

The legacy of Bobby Knight

Bobby Knight speaks at a National Collegiate Basketball Hall of Fame ceremony on Nov. 23, 2008. Associated Press/Photo by Ed Zurga

Triumph and temptation
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Bobby Knight’s name belongs to an older generation of sports fans. His passing on Nov. 1 was not a cultural event the way it would have been 20, maybe even 10 years ago. Prior to The General’s death, he had been out of coaching and out of the spotlight. Yet with Knight’s passing, something else seems to have gone the way of all the earth. There is a world that Knight inhabited but also exemplified: the world of take-no-prisoners competitiveness, the world of male anger, the world of physical (not just mental) toughness. It is nearly impossible to imagine the Bobby Knight of the 1970s and ’80s existing today.

At his peak, Knight was arguably one of the most famous coaches in American sports. His accomplishments spoke for themselves: a 29-year run at Indiana where Knight won over 73 percent of his games, gained three national championships, and guided the Hoosiers to numerous deep runs into the NCAA tournament. He was inducted into the Basketball Hall of Fame at the spry age of 50. He coached a team of amateurs to win a gold medal at the 1984 Olympics. Books about him became national bestsellers.

Knight’s fame was perhaps rivaled by his infamy. He was notoriously quick-tempered and unashamed of it. He was harsh, sometimes physically, with players, and profane with media and referees. The notorious “chair incident” has become a cultural touchstone, a metaphor for Knight’s legacy maybe even more than his victories. Throwing a chair onto the basketball court in anger crossed a very clear line. Allegations of violence toward players and even non-players led to his dismissal from Indiana in 2000 and a fall from the heights of sports glory from which he never recovered.

Knight was the ultimate case study of that perennial question: Is it better to be (morally) good or (professionally) great? Sports culture is generally forgiving. Immoral and even violent character can be washed away in a sea of victory. Knight pressed this forgiveness to its limits. Maybe more relevantly, he pushed the envelope in an emerging mass media age, which saw the ascent of cable sports and 24/7 coverage. As the camera found Knight’s explosions year after year, it stressed an unspoken yet real fault line in American culture. How is character weighed against competency? How good do you have to be at your job to no longer need to be good with people?

The reality is that, for men, excellence itself is often a relational currency.

The last few years have seen an increased interest in the unique dilemmas facing American men. Social scientists such as Richard Reeves have noted that as Western economies have shifted away from labor toward information work, the rules of success for men have suddenly changed. Instead of physical strength, men need emotional intelligence to navigate a corporate environment. Instead of demanding excellence of themselves and others, men are now incentivized to manage relationships, play office politics, and present a politically egalitarian disposition. This is not a small change. It’s a fundamental revolution in the kind of expectations that society has of its men. And, as Reeves concludes, it’s a revolution that is leaving many men—who are by nature more aggressive, competitive, and results-oriented than a human resources department can tolerate—adrift.

The question of how to weigh interpersonal virtue against vocational competence is especially relevant to men. Knight endured the controversies that he did for so long partly because he was an exceptional basketball coach, but also partly because many of his players respected him. His success mattered, not just to the university but also to them. Viewed through a contemporary feminist lens, it makes no sense why Knight’s former player Mike Woodson could tearfully tell Sports Illustrated that Knight “influenced my life in ways I could never repay.” To understand how a man so prone to such outbursts could nonetheless curry admiration and even affection from those under his authority requires a masculine intuition that is increasingly out of bounds among thought leaders.

The reality is that, for men, excellence itself is often a relational currency. Men admire men who succeed, not just men who are polite or well-mannered. To the extent that American economics or ideology tells men that the pursuit of excellence is always contingent on never hurting someone’s feelings, it will cultivate confusion, resentment, and reactivity in the half of the population who were given an outward-facing task at their very creation (Genesis 1–2).

Yet this has limits. Knight tarnished an impressive legacy by ignoring the warnings of Proverbs 25:28: “A man without self-control is like a city broken into and left without walls.” Success at the expense of others’ well-being is not healthy masculinity but mere selfishness, which tends not only toward frustration in this life but judgment in the next. To understand the world of Bobby Knight, Christians must recuse themselves from the nature-denying rituals of secular liberalism, while also acknowledging that men who cannot control themselves should not be allowed to control anything else.

Samuel D. James

Samuel D. James serves as associate acquisitions editor at Crossway Books. He is a regular contributor to First Things and The Gospel Coalition, and his writing has appeared in The Wall Street Journal, The Washington Post, and National Review. Samuel and his wife Emily live in Louisville, Ky., with their two children.

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