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Does ESPN Deserve To Be Held Accountable For Bob Knight's Comments?

This Bob Knight thing has been a Godsend for us bloggers, giving us lots of fodder for commentary while waiting on some kind of substantive news on the basketball team.  I would like to thank coach Bob Knight on behalf of all of us for opening his mouth and attempting to swallow his entire body south of his waistline.  It has definitely made commentary easier around here.

But now to a more serious question.  Both Matthew Hayes of Kentucky Sports Radio and Eric Crawford of the Louisville Courier-Journal opine today that ESPN shares at least some of the responsibility for Knight's comments.  Here's Hayes:

At this point, a simple slap on the wrist by ESPN won’t suffice. The story is now national news and something big has to be done to show Bob Knight that being ‘blatantly erroneous’ isn’t appropriate when you speak with the authority of a news group that calls itself ‘The Worldwide Leader in Sports’. There are certainly levels of journalistic integrity that must always be upheld and getting the facts right is about as crucially basic as it can get. We know that and ESPN certainly knows that.

And here is Crawford:

ESPN needs to explain its standards for analysts, and Knight needs to understand them. If a writer who wasn't a Hall of Fame coach for any media organization in the country made this kind of allegation without any evidence, there'd be strong and swift consequences.

Both of these opinions effectively say the same thing, albeit in different ways -- that Knight has a responsibility to be factual in his public commentary due to his position as an analyst on ESPN.  In other words, his job for the Worldwide Leader should restrain him from "red meat" dissimulation and hyperbole that is factually inaccurate or incomplete, and in this case, manifestly false and misleading.  Further, both Hayes and Crawford think that ESPN has not done enough to cure the harm done, and has a responsibility to do so.  It is the question of this responsibility we will explore now.

As a general principle, I believe in a strong separation between public remarks and private ones -- that is, when a person is speaking on his own behalf and not about the business, it generally should not be construed as a reflection of his employer's will or rigor in their business processes or ethics.  That "doctrine," if you will, does not include obvious breaches of ethics for public figures who can, reasonably or not, be seen as a "face" of their employer.

But Knight's case goes beyond even that caveat.  Kentucky and ESPN have contractual relationships with each other, and are, in effect, business partners.  ESPN pays Kentucky for broadcast rights to its games.  That is not true of every school in America, so this relationship matters in the context of Knight's commentary.

Knight's false and defamatory statements do violence to a business partner of ESPN, his employer.  Any business would and should find this very troubling.  As an employer myself, if one of my employees publicly ripped one of my business partners, especially in a false and defamatory way, we would have what is colloquially known as a "come to Jesus" meeting, and that meeting would largely be about how that employee plans to repair the damage he/she did to my company's business with his remarks, and possibly about a date certain that he/she would be free to explore new employment opportunities.

So it is with ESPN.  Even if ESPN accepts the general principle of separation of business and private comments, that principle would never be presumed to extend to its business partners, which is why ESPN now has a serious problem.   Knight's apology was not enough for me, and whether or not it will be enough for Mitch Barnhart and Lee Todd is the subject of speculation, but it may well not be.

In the end, the ball is in Kentucky's court.  If it wants to exert pressure on the Worldwide Leader, it is certainly in a position to do so, and it may well follow through.  If it does, Knight had better be working on a much more abject and convincing apology, or he may be analyzing college basketball from his living room rather than behind an ESPN desk.