Wednesday, May 17, 2000

Maybe, in a dysfunctional context, Neil Reed deserved to be grabbed by the throat.

He eventually was voted off the Indiana basketball team by his teammates.

All kinds of guys deserve to be grabbed by the neck and not just by coach Bob Knight in Bloomington, Ind.

Guys grab one another all the time at the gymnasium frequented by this space. They sometimes even throw punches at one another. They make threats. They hurl racial insults. They mention Jesus. They mention Allah. They mention all manner of sexual practices. They break every politically correct tenet imaginable. It is not pretty. It is not right.

But that is how it often goes in a gymnasium that has one basketball and 10 guys with ample doses of passion and testosterone.

John Rocker’s comments barely would resonate in this environment. He could say what he said, and people inevitably would comment on his cross-eyedness. In fact, he probably would be known as Cross-Eyes. You can have Cross-Eyes and Hook Nose on your team. We’ll take Stinky and Bashed-In Head.

This world, to say the least, is different from the workaday world. The social mores in a gym are ill-defined, and people’s buttons are routinely pushed. The line between appropriate and inappropriate behavior is constantly being obliterated.

To an outsider, it is simple. All the behavior, all the verbal assaults, all the questions regarding the size of a man’s manhood are inappropriate.

To those fueled by passion, testosterone and a ridiculous desire to win a meaningless pickup game it is not that simple.

This cocktail is potent, even lethal, as history reveals, and basketball was invented to provide young men with a safe outlet for their energies and aggressions in the winter.

Who knew staggering sums of money eventually would be involved in the game, that a person’s reputation would rise or fall with the outcome of a game, that something called college basketball actually would be considered incredibly important?

This is not to defend Knight’s temper-induced actions. You could make the case that he should have been fired, as many have done.

You also can make the case that Indiana University’s zero-tolerance response is ludicrous. Now Knight will be held to a hopeless standard. He, in effect, is no longer allowed to show his anger, although showing your anger is one of America’s principal pastimes.

Knight lives in a different world from most Americans, and it is a highly dysfunctional world. All too many of the participants are nuts, and you don’t have to travel far to see the nuts. You can go to your local gymnasium or playground. Nothing is at stake in these skirmishes, except the chance to stay on the court for another game.

The dysfunction is only exacerbated at Knight’s level because of the interest and money.

Here’s a secret, courtesy of an administrator at a local university: “All our coaches are nuts.”

It is true that no workaday employer could keep his job if he grabbed an employee by the throat. The comparison is convenient, barely apt. You might as well compare the military to the workaday world. You might as well wonder if all members of the workforce should be required to salute their bosses.

The trustees at Indiana, the school president, the media machine and a good number of call-in Americans believe Knight went too far with Reed and has gone too far in the past. They see a pattern of dysfunction that is outrageous, and they are right, at least as far as their right goes.

But they sound like the family worried about a photo album as their house burns down.

All the competition is dysfunctional in some form, on some level. All of it is made out to be so much more than it really is, and the conditioned response, whether it is Knight or a guy at the local gym, is to push the limits.

This space, not unlike Reed, has been a victim of sports-induced dysfunction, going back to high school football and a hot August day.

Indifference on a blocking dummy inspired the coach to use the blocking dummy as a sledgehammer on the breathing dummy’s head.

After four or five blows to the head, a renewed sense of purpose, predictably, replaced the indifference.

By the way, the breathing dummy admired the coach. He was one of the best.

It was a dysfunctional thing. You wouldn’t understand.

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