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Will ESPN Finally Fire Bob Knight?

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By Jim Weber

With the college basketball regular season coming to a close, the question is once again being asked, “Will ESPN finally fire Bob Knight?” In a word: Doubtful.

One of the things that’s made ESPN the 800-pound gorilla in sports television is that it has never allowed any individual to become bigger than the network. That is, until it hired Knight.

Throughout its 26-year existence, ESPN has made a habit out of letting popular broadcasters leave for other networks when the price tag got too high and suspending or firing big-time personalities who have embarrassed the company. Even Bill Simmons, which Sports Illustrated ranked as the most powerful man in sports media last year, has been held to this rule.

The message has always been clear: “You play by our rules and get paid like everybody else or you can find somewhere else to work. We’re ESPN. You need us more than we need you.”

But that ethos went out the window when the network hired the controversial Knight in 2008, which was reportedly the brainchild of executive Norby Williamson. This is a guy whose past incidents included:

  • Saying: ‘‘I think that if rape is inevitable, relax and enjoy it.’‘
  • Pretending to whip a black player (Calbert Cheaney) as a joke
  • Choking a player
  • Head butting a player
  • Grabbing a student by the neck

Oh, and he’d also once referred to ESPN’s Jeremy Schaap as a “chickensh*t little c*cksucker” and told Fran Fraschilla to go f*ck himself on national TV; they’re now his coworkers.

There’s no way ESPN would have hired anyone with even one of those incidents in his past if it wasn’t the most well known and controversial college basketball coach ever. That has set the tone for Knight’s six-year tenure at the network in which he has been beyond reproach despite multiple embarrassing moments.

There was the debacle in 2011 in which Knight erroneously accused Kentucky players of not attending classes. ESPN did not suspend Knight for the baseless accusations and let him off with a written apology he probably didn’t even see. Knight also said the word “chicken sh*t” on national TV that season. Instead of Knight issuing an apology like Lee Corso did when he dropped an f-bomb on “College GameDay,” Rece Davis apologized for Knight while “The General” didn’t even pay attention, folding a piece of paper on the set while Davis spoke.

[Note: Language is NSFW]

The next season, Knight appeared to fall asleep on the set of “GameDay” and refused to even say the word “Kentucky” on air. Not only did ESPN not suspend Knight for his latest ridiculous stunt involving UK, they didn’t even force him to make a fake apology this time.

Instead of firing Knight after the 2012 season for these incidents and being a terrible analyst in general, ESPN demoted him from calling games with Brent Musburger to the B Team with Davis. I can just picture the runaround the suits in Bristol gave Knight about how this had nothing to do with his performance on the air.

Last year there was the moment at Vanderbilt in which Knight couldn’t even tell the difference between the shot clock and the game clock. If Bob Knight is slipping mentally, I actually feel bad for him (yes, I just said that). But I’m not sure that’s the case, as Knight’s mental capacity still appears very sharp when he’s doing something he actually enjoys, like interviewing Wichita State’s Gregg Marshall.

Everyone assumed the charade was finally up at the end of last season when Knight’s contract expired. ESPN didn’t even have to fire him at that point; they could just say they weren’t renewing his contract. But somehow, inexplicably, Knight was given another deal with the network.

This season has just felt like Knight knows everyone wants him off the air, so he’s flipping America the double bird and saying, “I’m going to do whatever the hell I want and ESPN’s not gonna do a damn thing about it.”

In classic Knight fashion, during an interview with the St. Louis Post-Dispatch that ran the day before the VCU-Saint Louis game on Feb. 15, he said of the Rams, “I don’t think I could tell you one thing about ’em.” How is that acceptable for someone paid to analyze college basketball?

Last Thursday’s telecast between Kentucky and Arkansas had to be rock bottom even for Knight. There he was sitting next to Davis looking like someone kicked his dog, predicting whether or not free throws would be good in mid-air, stumbling through math in the final minutes and talking straight into a commercial break on one occasion.

Watching Davis try to steer the telecast back to the action instead of getting hijacked by Knight was cringe-worthy television. To have no knowledge about a team whose game you are about to call and do something as clearly unprofessional as guessing whether free throws will be good is unacceptable.

Apparently Knight’s special status at ESPN has even become a running joke in Bristol, where it’s become clear as day that bosses are slowly trying to fade him into obscurity without actually firing him. It’s as if executives at the company are terrified that if they upset Knight, he will storm into their office, throw a chair and wring their little necks.

My only guess is that while most people employed by ESPN understand Knight is bad for their college basketball coverage, Williamson and possibly some other executives are oblivious to how Knight is hurting the company’s credibility and falsely think he offers a unique perspective and that fans tune in and like to get angry with him like they do with Stephen A. Smith and Skip Bayless on “First Take” - a show that is critically panned but a ratings success.

With only a week left in college basketball’s regular season, it’s time someone in Bristol finally relieved Bob Knight of his duties as a color analyst and put an end to him being bigger than the network. If not fire him, ESPN should at least restrict him to only doing interviews with coaches, as his Q&A with Marshall was actually insightful.

Unfortunately, if history is any indication, we shouldn’t hold our breath.

Photo Credit: Joe Camporeale/USA Today Sports

 
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