Bob Knight can be forgiven; his insensitivity can't
Indiana basketball coach Bob Knight's pretending to lash Hoosier forward Calbert Cheaney with a bullwhip was bad. Knight's arrogant dismissal of complaints by those who were offended by his act, which was depicted in a photo that ran in the March 26 Albuquerque Journal, was worse.
Knight is a student of history; he even has a bachelor's degree in the subject from Ohio State. He must be aware that a bull-whip used on a black person—even playfully—is a painful reminder of slavery. "It evokes images of the times when white men used to use a whip to keep black men and women in line," said Alice Hoppes, president of the Albuquerque branch of the NAACP. "Those are images we would like to forget."
Whatever his flaws, Knight deserves better than to be branded a racist. To do so would ignore the respect and affection between him and most of his black players, past and present. Former Indiana guard Quinn Buckner, who is black, has referred to Knight as a second father, and Cheaney rushed to his coach's defense, pointing out that Knight also pretended to use the whip on at least one white Indiana player, forward Pat Graham. "It was no big deal," Cheaney said. "If I didn't think it was right, I wouldn't have done it."
Knight's sense of humor often drifts toward the crude or offensive, and making a joke in poor taste is forgivable. It might have been left at that had he acknowledged that reasonable people can disagree about what is objectionable. Instead, his response to the complaints of the Albuquerque NAACP and others was insensitive and arrogant.
"Don't even bother me with that——," Knight said. "What I need to apologize for is 18 black kids who have played four years for me with 15 having their degrees, with every black kid that's gone through his senior year with me having a really good job and being a very contributing member to society, for recruiting the first black kid at West Point. I guess those are the things I have to apologize for."
A number of people try to tell Knight that what he did hurt them, and they get sarcasm. They look for some acknowledgment that their feelings matter to him, and they get, "Don't even bother me with that——." Is that the lesson that Knight, the educator, wants his players to learn—that as long as someone thinks he's right, he doesn't need to consider the perspective or sensitivities of others?
At the end of Indiana's win over UCLA last Saturday, Knight was bent over on the sidelines when Cheaney came up behind him and playfully whacked him on the backside with a towel. Knight pretended not to notice, but he had to have noticed. Maybe he thought that this action would speak louder than words, or maybe he considers the whole thing a joke. It is difficult to determine what Knight is trying to say sometimes. But his comments would be more meaningful if only he were willing to listen.