They finally did it. Indiana University has fired Bobby Knight, their infamous basketball coach known as much for his tirades both on and off the court as for the fact that he's won more college basketball games than any other active basketball coach. Knight has run a clean program under NCAA rules, and he has had one of the highest graduation rates of his players at the Division I level.
But Knight was also out of control, and not even a zero-tolerance agreement he made last spring with the president of the university could keep either his hair-trigger temper or his razor-sharp tongue in check. After it came to light that he had allegedly roughed up and cursed a university student for having simply called him "Knight" (instead of Mr. or Coach Knight), University President Miles Brand announced that that was merely one in a string of violations since the zero-tolerance agreement, so he had no choice but to fire Knight.
Some pundits have argued that Knight's problem is that he's from the old school, that he hasn't adjusted to the politically correct standards of today, nor has he adjusted to the reality that top-level athletes today expect to be pampered and stroked and treated like the near-gods they have come to believe they are. Knight, it has been said, honed his coaching style in an era when men were men and boys were boys and it was permissible for authority figures like coaches to bully their subjects into submission and use vocabulary that would make any sailor feel at home.
Well, Knight will never be accused of being politically correct—not the Knight who once advised women who were raped that they should just relax and enjoy it. (That comment alone would have probably gotten a tenured professor fired.) Certainly, Knight is Machiavellian, if that is old school: he'd rather be feared than loved. Yet, it's amazing how well the "new school" accommodates the old school. Many of Knights loyal followers—players, students, citizens of the basketball crazy state of Indiana—have come to his defense. And they do so not just because of his teams' successes; many of them see no problem with his temper tantrums, his foul language, and his verbally-abusive barrages. But then why would a generation of people who have been to the school of Jerry Springer, MTV, Beavis and Butthead have a problem with Bobby Knight's foul mouth and abusive behavior?
I've long been a believer in the notion that we need to listen to the language we use and to discern how patterns in language behavior shift over time. The language we speak says more about us than we intend to say; and shifts in the language we use are great barometers of cultural shifts. What many analysts have observed is a "coarsening of American culture" marked by language which is very uncivil, discourse unfit for what once would have been called "polite company." I'm not here just lamenting the slide into language peppered with four letter words, with the "F-word" used repeatedly as though it were punctuation. I'm just as concerned about language with an attitude—speech used to slander, put down, intimidate, or ridicule other people.
The use of the Internet has perhaps facilitated this slide even more than TV, movies, and pop music lyrics. The faceless, sometimes anonymous nature of e-mail communication encourages people to say things to each other which they'd likely not say were communicating face-to-face. This invective, inflammatory style of slamming others is, appropriately, called "flaming."
Qualcomm, which makes the popular software program Eudora for sending and receiving e-mail, has built into its next version a "mood check" feature called "Moodwatch" (see www.eudora.com). This new feature will flag inflammatory speech and encourage people to think twice before sending or receiving messages they might regret later. So far, they've built into the program 2.7 million different combinations of words which get flagged with one to three "red-hot, chilly pepper" figures, depending upon the severity and offensiveness of the language used. With three peppers, the software program warns: "Whoa, this is the kind of thing that might get your keyboard washed out with soap."
We Christians cannot help being influenced by a culture which uses language freely to mock and put down and intimidate. Just listen to how our own children and youth unconsciously mimic what they hear in pop culture. The adult leaders of the youth group in the congregation I pastor have told me it is so bad that they have to continually remind the kids to ask themselves two questions before speaking: Is it nice? And is it necessary? And these are fine, young people who don't swear—at least not in front of their adult leaders—young people committed to service to others and witness for Christ. And yet, using language which mocks and taunts another person for something as simple as the type of hat a peer may be wearing comes as naturally as saying grace before meals.
Throughout our history, we Christians have been known for many different things: for our love for the down and out, for our care of the sick and the dying, for translating the Bible into every nearly every language in the world. Perhaps the time has come for we Christians to be known for our language, for the kind of way we address each other and others outside the family of faith. It would be a kind of language which doesn't put down or curse others, but a language which blesses others with the use of benedictory words. Many Christians think benedictions are prayers said to conclude a worship service. Wrong. "Benediction" comes from two Latin words, bene and dicere, which mean to speak well of, to bless. Many benedictions are intended for other people, not God, hence, they are not prayers. Besides, as a Christian and a pastor, I have come to the conviction that we should offer one another "benedictions," not just in worship but in the course of daily living.
It has impressed me with the way people respond positively to such words of blessing. For example, I am getting into the habit of ending pastoral care visits by looking straight into the eyes of the person, grasping one or both of his hands with both of my hands, and saying: "May the peace of Christ be with you, __________ (name)." At first people tend to respond with a bit of surprise, but then I observe a melting of the person as they receive the words that I intend literally and not just as a pious farewell. What more do I have to offer people as a Christian, not to speak of being a pastor, than bene-dictions, words of healing and blessing?
If we were to come to the point that our language as Christians would be punctuated with well meaning and appropriately spoken bene-dictions, perhaps we'd then become known for our language. And then we'd have to add another verse to that popular song that we nearly wore out in the 1970s: "They will know we are Christians by our language."
Until that happens, watch your language. It's probably saying more about you than you think.
Richard A. Kauffman, a former associate editor at Christianity Today, is pastor of the Toledo (Ohio) Mennonite Church.
Read more about Knight and interim coach Mike Davis at the University of Indiana's athletics page.
Read IU's statement on releasing Knight.
Knight's farewell speech to the student body can be found at excite.com.
Sports Illustrated has also covered the Knight affair.
Other media coverage of Knight's departure includes:
Fired Indiana Coach Knight Wants Last Word | Reuters (Sept. 11, 2000)
Fired Bobby Knight calms angry student demonstrators | CNN (Sept. 11, 2000)
Knight fired as Indiana basketball coach | CBS SportsLine (Sept. 10, 2000)
Previous Christianity Today articles by Kauffman (oops. Mr. Kauffman) include:
Missiology | Scholars Uncovering Church's Hidden History (July 13, 1998)
Welfare Round Table | Leaders Pursue Unity in Fighting Poverty (June 16, 1997)
Beyond Bake Sales | Christian volunteerism needs to be directed toward the deepest hurts. (June 16, 1997)
Why the Conductor Threw Away His Baton | John Nelson's crusade to keep alive sacred choral music. (April 7, 1997)
Copyright © 2000 Christianity Today. Click for reprint information.
Have something to add about this? See something we missed? Share your feedback here.