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Jewish World Review May 23, 2000/ 18 Iyar, 5760

Marianne M. Jennings

Marianne M. Jennings
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Consumer Reports


The new
coach -- BOBBY KNIGHT has the Hoosiers of Indiana in a dither. Of course, their dither over the waste- can tossing, neck-grabbing, foul-mouthed basketball coach of Indiana University was suppressed until he lost in the first round in this year's NCAA March Madness. Swear, choke and yell all you want so long as you're winning. Lose that quickly on national TV and, so help us, we'll put our hands on our waists and click our tongues at you.

The coach with the temper of a young John McEnroe, the sensitivity of Howard Stern, the vocabulary of Lenny Bruce and the patience of W.C. Fields has been disciplined by the trustees of Indiana University. The public response has been rote and shallow, "What took them so long?" (He was winning) and this classic from a New York Times editorial by Jim Lichtman, a self-proclaimed ethicist, "In spite of the offense, if you apologize and act penitent enough, we will tolerate, allow, make exception. We'll give you a pass because you're talented and we want -- need -- that talent. Talent is the overriding factor because of what it contributes to big sales and winning teams." Where was this guy and his ethics during the Clinton impeachment saga? The New York Times then cautioned mightily about proportionality in punishment for Clinton, a talented leader.

Cries of ethics descend upon Bloomington for "only" a reprimand -- termination is in order for a coach who is rough with his charges. In what territory of la la land have these ethicists, sports writers, and commentators been residing? We are speaking of college sports, nay, we are speaking of revenue college sports, just a few brass knuckles down the supply chain from the Gambino family.

Those spouting "whitewash" ignore the reality that college athletics long ago lost any semblance of integrity. Players come to institutions functionally illiterate. Knight, like every other Division IA school coach, is working with young men whose total SAT scores, total, are 700. The bright ones register a 2.0 on the GPA scale, despite horrific grade inflation.

As a former faculty athletic representative who met with incoming freshmen revenue athletes each fall to encourage them to go to class, I learned two things: (1) they all think they'll be in the pros; and (2) one should not go among them to discuss academics unless armed with food, preferably red meat.

These are young men in desperate need of a foot in the bottom, and not a shoeless one. It is fear of a tornado like Bobby Knight that keeps their noses to the grindstone, their muscles on the weight machines and their presence at practice. You can't talk Nietzsche with these kids and expect nothin' but net. John Wooden, a basketball coach for UCLA when recruits were Wally Cleaver and George Bailey said, "I coined my own definition for success, which I tried to personally attain and get all my students to attain. It is a piece of mind which is a direct result of self-satisfaction in knowing you did your best to become the best of which you're capable."

Well, I'm glad he cleared that up for the boys, to wit, "Let's get out there and be capable against Notre Dame!" This approach has worked so well in building character at UCLA. Last July four UCLA revenue athletes were charged with illegally obtaining handicapped license plates so that they could use parking spots closest to their facilities.

When did college sports, with its phony jobs for student-athletes, grade-changing scandals and booster cash drift into mollycoddling modes? Trips to the woodshed of a bygone era did not result in the demented souls that haunt out high schools and psychiatric clinics. Someone cared enough to be tough on kids.

Bobby Knight cares enough to be tough with kids. I would place my sons under his tutelage because lost in all the hoopla is that Knight runs one of the few ethical college athletic programs in the country. One newspaper had this most delicious irony in its headline, "Hoosiers coach given last shot to clean up act." Graduating players from college and running a clean program requires cleaning up? Bobby Knight doesn't cheat and his graduation rate for his student-athletes is 98%. Compare that with the NCAA national figure for the revenue sports (it's about 24%). Knight's charges leave with a pro career and/ or a degree, but they all leave with better futures. Meanwhile, the sweet-talking, civilized coaches lie to the mothers of recruits and use these kids for five years, then toss their fates to the wind, in many cases worse off than they were before college because they have been mollycoddled by college athletics. Ethics, where art thou?

The trustees of IU have reduced a flamboyant coach to a Dianne Wiest character: soft- spoken, gentle and loved by all the creatures of the kingdom. "Creatures" is the operative word -- large, effort-challenged ones in dire need of a tough coach. Bear Bryant, Woody Hayes, Frank Kush, and Bobby Knight -- men who frightened us but shaped boys into men and along the way won some games. But, no more, for Indiana tolerates toughness no more.

Give that coach an apron for his sensitivity pledge mandates a new uniform for mollycoddling.

JWR contributor Marianne M. Jennings is a professor of legal and ethical studies at Arizona State University. Send your comments by clicking here.


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© 2000, Marianne M. Jennings