Friday, March 14, 2008

Buyer Beware: ESPN's Hiring Bobby Knight a Poor Decision

ESPN isn't called the 'Worldwide Leader' for nothing. They remain the definitive place to turn for any and all sports news. That's mainly because they have created an incredibly diverse and marketable product and have worked equally as hard to protect their brand.

They dominate sports one even comes close. Which makes their recent move to hire the infamous Bobby Knight as a college basketball analyst that much more bizarre. Knight, the former media-bashing grizzled old coach, is suddenly the network's new poster boy for NCAA coverage. But why?

This is not to say that Knight can't pull it off. He can. Knight gets it. He knows exactly what the network is looking for and delivers good information. Albeit in his own slumped over, "I could care less" style. He's been interviewed more than any other coach imaginable. George Bush hasn't seen as many microphones and recorders as Knight has. And 'The General' knows the ins and outs of the television game. In his debut, he began well. It's about the soundbyte...making sharp witticisms quickly and succinctly. In all honesty, Knight (minus his vampire-like demeanor and elementary school gym coach attire) will be one of the network's better hoops analysts over the next few weeks.

But questions remain...why Bobby Knight? Why did ESPN feel they had to go and chase down 'The General' himself for this role? Their hoops analyst staff is already bloated...their contributing staff immense. Bilas, Forde, Katz, Brown, Vitale, Fraschilla, Phelps, Gottlieb, Glockner, Lunardi, Davis...the list goes on and on. What does Knight do that these people can't?

That answer is simple. He is such a polarizing personality that people, Knight-lovers or Knight-haters, will watch. As if ESPN needed to boost their already gargantuan ratings. But, how does ESPN use his expertise? They set him up in 'fluff' pseudo-analysis scenarios like Knight's Insights. A chance for fans to ask him questions about random basketball-related stories from working with the media, to career-reflection, etc. It's clear that ESPN isn't interested in bringing Knight to the network to address any real issues. They don't want the ugly side of the good General throwing chairs or choking players, they want the marketable side of Knight.

ESPN is giving Knight the broadcasting equivalent of an open-lane layup every time he goes on-air. No probing questions about his abrupt departure from Texas Tech and the fact that he all but forced that administration to retain his own son as new head coach. None of that. It's all fluff for Bobby Knight.

Case in point, last night Davis and Phelps dished out a nice PR-stunt assist. Knight was set-up for a two-minute discussion about his wife Karen's basketball I.Q. and her positive affect on his life. Now that is riveting analysis of the conference tournaments! Come on already! Also, as Leonard Shapiro of the Washington Post noted, Knight has also refused to address any potentially negative news regarding his old coaching buddies. Ask about Kelvin Sampson's exploits...his son's struggles at TT...recruiting violations at Harvard...Knight won't answer. So why hire him?

ESPN's coverage of Knight's retirement was fair, as it should have been. But while some of the network's analysts chose to suck-up to Knight, others took a more harsh stance. In Pat Forde's article, he lays it out on the line. Knight quit on his team. Plain and simple. A team that was 12-8 and 3-3 in the Big 12 conference...very much in the hunt. They finished 16-15 and 7-9 and had their bells rung by Texas A&M and Kansas. When he stepped down, Knight claimed he was tired and that he couldn't do it anymore. But just three weeks later Knight was back at work?!? Some vacation. This has truly become a theater of the absurd.

Besides his most egregious offenses, Knight has a history with ESPN. A history of attempting to embarrass and discredit reporters. Reporters like Jeremy Schaap. When Knight mocked Schaap on national television, Jeremy's father Dick (a broadcasting icon) appeared on Sports Reporters a few days later and derided 'The General' for attacking his family. It was a bold move and journalists everywhere applauded. Finally someone stood up to Knight. The schoolyard bully of coaches when it comes to media interaction.

If you think this is making a mountain out of a mole-hill, watch this. From cursing on-air, to cursing in front of a family-filled crowd, to insulting reporters, to verbally berating Indiana University officials, to cursing at an NCAA press official charged with trying to 'work' with Knight. Class act all the way.

And through it all, ESPN has been there to document it. To let us fans at home know just what Bobby Knight thinks of the media...thinks of us. In 1979, he assaulted a police officer in Puerto Rico. In 2000, a freshman at IU alleged that Knight attacked him because he didn't call him 'Coach.' Aren't coaches supposed to be teachers? What would have happened had an IU professor/staff member done the same? They would have been fired. And Knight promptly was.

Ever since then, some people have seen fit to coddle him for one reason or another. Texas Tech gave him a chance. They wanted to liven things up and awaken a dead program. While with the Red Raiders, Knight got his 800th and 900th wins on the way to becoming the winningest coach in NCAA D-1 men's hoops history. But how did he truly regard their program? By cutting out five months after signing a contract extension that would have kept him in Lubbock until 2012. He was supposed to be committed to his assistants, players, recruits and their parents. But he's not a 'committer,' he's become a quitter.

Knight has stated that being employed as a member of the media was "one or two steps above prostitution." He also once said of journalists, "All of us learn to write in the second grade. Most of us go on to greater things." This coming from a coach. Not a scientist, governor or doctor, but a BASKETBALL COACH.

When Knight was hired, ESPN's Executive Vice President for Production said Knight brought "sophistication" to the table. Really? And with that, 'The General' joined 'The Dark Side.' He's one of "them."

A step above prostitution? Not for ESPN...they are official broadcast hustlers. They are the pimps pushing Knight out onto the street corners of college basketball's landscape. He's turning tricks for them, grabbing cash and smiling on-screen. But Knight will ultimately have the last laugh. He'll do the song and dance until the 'Big Dance' is over. Then he'll go back to hunting and fishing.

You see, he's into killing. Just watch Texas Tech over the next few years. He just effectively killed that program. Now he's about to bag the credibility of the 'Worldwide Leader' for giving him a platform. Knight is working from the inside-out, just like a good hoops coach would. He's suckered ESPN, the same network that he's insulted and cursed for decades.

Congrats to ESPN for hiring the man who has spat in their collective face time and time again. All for a meaningless ratings boost.

And congrats to Robert Montgomery Knight. The ultimate hustler.

Damn he's good.

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