The Wrath of God and Bobby Knight

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Bobby Knight, famous in American college basketball as head coach at Indiana University, is much given to what commentaries on the Old Testament refer to as "ebullitions of wrath." Some of Bobby's ebullitions have been on display in television news clips the last couple of days: Coach Knight hurling a molded plastic chair the length of a basketball court; Coach Knight, displeased, putting a straight-arm Darth Vader chokehold on one of his own players. The papers have also showed shots of Coach Knight flourishing a bullwhip during a team practice, leading me to think that at least some of his ebullitions are satirical.

Bobby Knight works himself into a hell of a competitive lather. But then, so did General George Patton, another field commander with a winning record who came close to destroying his own career by slapping shell-shocked soldiers in Army hospitals. Bobby admits he has "a temper problem" — which is like Jeffrey Dahmer saying that he suffers from an eating disorder.

Knight's eruptions have been going on for years, but this week, with hilarious solemnity, Indiana University completed a formal investigation of the coach's "pattern of inappropriate behavior." The university might have fired Knight outright, as Dwight Eisenhower and George C. Marshall might have fired Patton. The university might have considered intermediate steps — prefrontal lobotomy, say. Instead, Indiana decided to fine Knight $30,000, suspend him for three games next season, and give him one no-kidding-this-time "last chance" to behave himself. If Knight had been losing basketball games, of course, he would have been cut up for bait long ago. Forbearance follows the money.

Knight dramatizes an ethical dilemma in the longer term. We are approaching the day when we will be able to engineer personality traits into, or out of, the human makeup. When we come to bioengineering the next generation of coaches, do we intend to leave out the anger? Would the human race be better off without rage? Would competitive sports survive without it? Forget coaching basketball. How about professional football?

Is anger desirable or undesirable? Is anger a hateful and disfiguring manifestation? Or is it an effective, animating instrument? The English essayist Thomas Fuller composed a lovely sermonette on anger in 1642. "Anger is one of the sinews of the soul," Fuller wrote. "He that wants it hath a maimed mind... nor is it good to converse with such as cannot be angry, and with the Caspian Sea never ebb and flow." But Fuller set up sensible rules, such as this: "Take heed of doing irrevocable acts in thy passion... Samson's hair grew again, but not his eyes." He acknowledged the disfigurement: "Had Narcissus himself seen his own face when he had been angry, he could never have fallen in love with himself."

The world is divided between those who consider anger to be a form of temporary insanity and those who believe it to be a sign of strength of character, a weapon in the hands of the righteous, an instrument of justice. The Encyclopaedia of Religion and Ethics says primly that "anger... is found in the divine character, as it is always found in any strong human character."

The encyclopaedia goes on to describe divine wrath: "He is the covenant God of his people. He seeks their salvation. If he is angry, it is when the conditions under which alone he can work out that salvation are infringed, and his purpose of mercy is imperiled."

Coach Knight thinks of himself and his team along the same lines. Everybody (basketball coach, biogeneticist) wants to be God.