This weekend I enjoyed watching many Regional games for the NCAA Women’s College World Series (WCWS) on ESPN and BTN. I love watching the array of talented female athletes getting prime time TV coverage, as it so rarely happens! Sport media coverage of the WCWS seems to be expanding and improving in production quality. One step forward! ↑
However, why does ESPN air interviews of Bobby Knight discussing his appreciation of women’s sport during women’s sport broadcasts? One step back ↓ I saw his softball segment aired at least twice over the weekend, and he also appeared in ESPN segments during the 2013 Women’s NCAA Basketball March Madness and Final Four programming discussing Brittney Griner.
I thought it offensive during the basketball tournament, but when he appeared again during the WCWS it really made me pause…and then it made me outraged. Bobby Knight is no fan or advocate of women’s sport or women in general. Why do I find this offensive?
1. in 1988 in an interview with Connie Chung, Knight stated, “I think that if rape is inevitable, relax and enjoy it” (NOTE: He was not sanctioned nor fired from his post as head men’s basketball coach at Indiana for his comment)
2. Despite his coaching record and reverence by some, he has a history of abusive behaviors toward athletes that are well documented. While he did not coach women, his abuse of male athletes should not be overlooked or forgotten. There are PLENTY of coaches, male or female, to interview that are real advocates of women’s sport and treat their athletes with care and respect. Why give a controversial coach a voice? Why give Knight any airtime during the two most important and premiere college women’s sport events that are broadcast on ESPN? (I’ll come back to this momentarily)
3. In early 1989 shortly after Knight’s rape comment, my college tennis coach at Gustavus Adolphus College ‘arranged’ (i.e., we stalked Knight in 2 hotel lobbies until midnight waiting for him to return post game, and then our coach pounced on him and convinced him to talk to his team) for our team to ‘meet’ Knight after Indiana played Minnesota here in Minneapolis. None of us wanted to meet Knight as we were well aware of his comment and one of our teammates had been raped the year prior. The thought of facing Knight was traumatic for her and angering to the rest of us. Knight reluctantly agreed and we were treated to a short ‘pep talk’ that included offensive comments like, “Girls shouldn’t play sports like basketball because they don’t look feminine – just sports like tennis where they run around in skirts and look cute” and “female athletes should look like females when they play and wear some make-up, like lipstick and nail polish.” If you knew my teammates, all amazing and strong women, it is unfathomable how Knight escaped that night unscathed. It remains to date one of our most memorable moments as a team. I know his offensive comments and dismissive behavior in part shaped who I am today, and what I do…trying to make a difference in the lives of girls and women through sport.
I am offended due to my personal experience with Knight in addition to his historical record of disregard for women. Here is what is bothering me today: Why would ESPN give Knight airtime during the two most important and premiere college women’s sport events shown on TV? Why does his voice matter in the landscape of women’s sport? What does it say that a major sport network continues to give Knight airtime and treat him with respect when he has a history of abusive behavior as a coach? (especially in light of the Mike Rice/Rutgers coach abuse scandal, where you could argue Rice’s behavior is an emulation of Knight) What does it say about ESPN and their value of and commitment to respectful coverage of women’s sport? Who decided Knight should be interviewed and what criteria did he use? ( I say ‘he” because a large majority of positions of power in sport media are held by men)
In short, giving Knight airtime during premiere college women’s sport events marginalizes female athletes and is offensive to those who are true fans. It sends the message that women’s sport needs a powerful and (arguably) successful male figure to validate its existence. Women’s sport and female athletes do not need, and I would argue by and large do not WANT, Bobby Knight’s validation or appreciation. The whole thing feels patriarchal and patronizing.
Sport and media are inextricably linked–what is communicated (and not) to audiences is important, and this is no exception. Knight appearing on ESPN when he did is about preserving and perpetuating male power and privilege in the world of sport. What better way to undermine amazingly talented female athletes who are the best in their respective sport, playing on ESPN in prime time, than to interview someone with a history of disrespect for female athletes and women in general.
Two steps back… ↓↓