Modern Zeitgeist Is Killing Sports

By West, Woody | Insight on the News, October 16, 2000 | Go to article overview

Modern Zeitgeist Is Killing Sports


West, Woody, Insight on the News


Two episodes from the gaudy world of sports demonstrate that there is a sell-by date for institutions and celebrities that, if disregarded, will exact a price. The first is that overstuffed romp in Australia, the Olympic Games; the other is the firing of Bobby Knight, the tempestuous Indiana University basketball coach.

Consider Knight first. For 29 years he aggressively coached the Indiana University men's basketball team to a rare level of performance, including three national championships (there's been a dry spell since the last one, and that may have been an ingredient in this messy finale).

Significant also in his CV is that more than 95 percent of his student-athletes -- the term had genuine meaning for Knight -- have graduated over the decades. In the dismally professionalized arena of intercollegiate sports, that is astonishing. Knight believed, if you can credit it in this age of big-bucks college athletics, that with the right leadership sports can build character.

He was also an anachronism. He had trouble distinguishing the fine line between authoritarian and authoritative. Knight had a temper and from time to time made an ass of himself with pyrotechnic displays. He was known to lay hands on his players to emphasize his instruction, sometimes roughly. It was one of those incidents from some years back, preserved on tape, that was the penultimate cause of his firing. The university administration huffed and puffed and imposed a zero-tolerance level on his brusque behavior.

Then last month, Knight grabbed a freshman by the arm and, as the coach tells it, lectured him for incivility. That's it, said his bosses -- be gone! And the sportswriters went into pulpit mode such that Vlad the Impaler wouldn't have gotten worse press.

Well, the world has changed since Knight began his coaching career at West Point in the 1950s. As Washington Times columnist Tom Knott neatly put it, "He is up against Oprah and Rosie, the ribbon-wearing crowd and an industry devoted to being ultrasensitive, politically correct and sufficiently androgynous" to appease the zeitgeist.

Knight's time had passed and he did not realize it -- and had to pay the piper. Can anyone imagine Vince Lombardi, revered as he is, coaching today with his dictatorial methods, short fuse and lacerating tongue?

It's imprudent to ignore the shelf dates. Something like that also has happened to the Olympics -- from dignified ritual to obese spectacle. …

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