The winningest coach in college basketball history, Bobby Knight, retired unexpectedly yesterday with several games remaining in the season.
Knight, known both for his coaching brilliance and angry, public and private tirades, has long been a big target of criticism from sportswriters.
A large part of that criticism is well-earned, for Knight has always been thoroughly uncompromising in his insistence that his teams play the game the way it should be played and that others involved in the game reach similar standards, and he often manifested it in childish behavior, verbal aggression, and physical violence.
An even bigger reason for sportswriters’ dislike of him, however, is his refusal to pretend that he doesn’t know that most of them don’t know the game of basketball very well at all and that as a consequence they concentrate their stories on gossip, emotions, and other things ancillary to the game and not deserving of the elevated attention given them.
I think, however, that there’s another impulse at work here, beyond the need to justify themselves after decades of Knight mocking them and challenging the press as relentlessly as he challenged his players and himself.
Coach Knight’s imposing physical presence (6’5" and very burly, with strong brow and piercing eyes), directness, impatience, refusal to compromise or apologize if he thinks he’s right, self-assurance, intolerance of sloth and excuse-making, and the like are all strongly masculine qualities, and just happen to be prominent among the types of characteristics most consistently derided in our society today.
Of course I don’t excuse chair-thowing, physical violence toward innocents, public vulgarity, and other actions that could seriously harm other people. But let’s be realistic for at least a moment: slapping a player on the back of the head during practice—or even grabbing him by the neck, the act that got him fired from Indiana University—isn’t going to hurt the young man, and might just help knock some sense into him.
If that sounds archaic and even a bit mad, that just shows how far our culture and society have gone in denying reality in the attempt to rid our society of independence, courage, frankness, leadership, firmness, and other personal characteristics that threaten the power of the state.
The reality is that young men tend to be stubborn and stupid and respond most readily to the prospect of physical force and promises of instant rewards. A coach who can’t cuff his players around is severely handicapped in motivating his players.
In my occasional experiences coaching younger boys (those in middle school), I haven’t ever felt even the slightest impulse to treat a player physically roughly, but when boys reach adolescence and their late teen years, it’s a different story entirely. I recognize that much of what some coaches do is strongly socially disapproved and can even be illegal, constituting physical assault, but in such cases I think society and the law are wrong, not the coaches.
Nobody who didn’t want to put up with Knight’s rough ways had to play for him. On the contrary, players from across the country clamored to join his team, and the ones who complained about his actions as coach almost invariably happened to be those who coudn’t meet his demanding standards.
Coach Knight’s greatness is bound up in these very things that so many sportswriters hate about him. Bobby Knight is a great example of what is both good and bad about masculinity, and his immense accomplishments as a coach should give us an inkling of what we will all miss if our statist overlords should succeed in their assault on masculinity.