ESPN can't let Knight play by own rules

Legendary college basketball coach Bob Knight has long done things his way, and his five years as an ESPN analyst have been no different. Knight prefers to call himself a basketball consultant rather than a member of the media, and wears sweaters like those from his coaching days, rather than the standard analyst wardrobe of coat and tie.

But Knight went too far recently in covering the early rounds of the NCAA men’s tournament. Asked about teams vulnerable to upsets, Knight went out of his way to avoid saying “Kentucky,” referring to the No. 1 seed in the South Region as only “that team from the SEC.”

That wasn’t new behavior: In February, Knight was asked on the “Mike & Mike in the Morning” radio show about the country’s top teams, and left Kentucky out of the discussion -- despite the Wildcats being ranked No. 1 in both the Associated Press and coaches’ polls. Nor, in a discussion of the country’s best players, did he mention Kentucky’s Anthony Davis. (ESPN PR says such accounts have been overstated, since Knight's focus in the segment was on Syracuse. Listen here.)

What’s going on here? It doesn’t take a conspiracy theorist to figure it out. Back in 2009, Knight said he couldn’t understand why Kentucky’s John Calipari was still coaching since he’d “put two schools on probation in Massachusetts and Memphis,” a reference to Final Four appearances vacated by the NCAA for infractions that happened on Calipari’s watch. (In neither case was Calipari implicated.) Then, last spring, in criticizing the policy allowing players to go to the NBA after a single season, Knight said that Kentucky had “started five players in the NCAA tournament games that had not been to class that semester.” That wasn’t true, and Knight soon apologized.

Given this history of bad blood, readers and critics pounced on Knight’s circumlocutions, and rightly so.

“His failure to refer to the college basketball teams of Kentucky and Indiana by name is, quite frankly, childish and immature behavior that is reprehensible,” one reader wrote to the Poynter Review Project. Opined another: “That is pathetic, and it is just as pathetic that ESPN brass allow this farce to continue.” A third wrote that “I would like to know if ESPN still feels the positives of his employment continue to outweigh the potential damage to the college basketball arm of the ESPN brand.”

Some at ESPN had their say, too.

Take this instantly popular tweet from ESPN columnist Rick Reilly: “What happens to Bob Knight if he says the word ‘Kentucky’? Does his lower jaw fall off? Snakes spring from his hair? My God, does he smile?”

With a media furor in full swing, something interesting happened: Last Wednesday, Knight appeared on the “Mike & Mike” show, discussed Friday’s upcoming Kentucky and Indiana rematch, and mentioned both teams by name multiple times. (Kentucky would win, 102-90.)

What changed? In answer to our inquiries last week, Mark Gross, ESPN senior vice president and executive producer, e-mailed us this comment: “Our production staff has had conversations with Coach Knight on the topic. On this past Wednesday’s appearance on ESPN’s 'Mike & Mike,’ he talked extensively about Kentucky, a week after he specifically discussed Kentucky on his March 14 'Mike & Mike' appearance. Our focus now is on our upcoming coverage of the NCAA tournament and Final Four.”

Knight, indeed, did talk about Kentucky on the March 14 show, mentioning the school by name once in discussing how the Wildcats’ loss in the SEC title game might affect their tournament play. But his comments about Kentucky were remarkable mostly for how generic they were -- contrast that limp analysis with his discussion of Syracuse and Fab Melo earlier in the segment.

Knight is far from the first coach to treat longtime rivals as if they don’t exist or aren’t fit to be named, and his well-known irascibility is part of his charm. (At least to some.) The problem is that Knight isn’t appearing on ESPN as a coach, but as an analyst. For a coach to be petulant and flaunt grudges is part of the theater of sports; for an analyst to do so is unprofessional behavior.

On the one hand, the Poynter Review Project is reluctant to make a federal case out of this. We doubt it is news to any college hoops fan that Knight isn’t a fan of Calipari’s, and ESPN brought Knight on not just for his basketball acumen but also for his larger-than-life personality. Nor do we think it’s a disaster for ESPN to let Knight march to the beat of his own drummer at times (who cares if the man wears sweaters on the air?).

But while 902 wins, 11 Big Ten Conference titles, three NCAA championships and an Olympic gold medal might let you keep your top button undone, it doesn’t allow you to be derelict in your duties as an analyst. And this gets to a question that has bedeviled ESPN before: Do its star analysts get to play by different rules than the rest of ESPN’s talent?

ESPN has taken steps to address that perception, but too often they’ve been half-measures. Take last year’s two-tiered system for endorsement deals, discussed by Poynter here. Non-analysts are limited in which endorsement deals they can sign, with an eye on preventing apparent conflicts of interests; analysts (and some reporters) can strike such deals, checked only by ESPN’s public disclosure of the deals it deems relevant.

ESPN sees that system as a necessary compromise given the reality of the sports world’s big salaries and big egos, and we have a fair amount of sympathy for their dilemma. But it means ESPN has to be very careful about policing that system -- and making clear what is and is not acceptable.

That's particularly true given the overlap in roles between ESPN's star analysts and its journalists. Analysts don't necessarily have to be rigorously objective -- as ESPN's journalists do -- but they do have to be fair, and professional in how they treat their subjects. Sports bona fides don't preclude ESPN's celebrity analysts from doing excellent work for viewers and readers; many of them do. But if that work is unfair or unprofessional, it besmirches the work of ESPN journalists who have to live by different rules.

In Knight’s case, ESPN moved relatively quickly to intercede and, one hopes, to prevent further damage. But it shouldn’t have had to do so in the first place. When you become an analyst, you’re no longer a coach. Your accumulated wisdom and body of work comes with you, to inform that analysis. Biases and bad blood, on the other hand, have to be left behind.