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Why Bobby Knight And A Rogues' Gallery Of Athletes Are Flocking To Trump

Donald Trump could solidify his position as the Republican Party's all-but-certain nominee with a win in Indiana Tuesday.

Ted Cruz is hoping an endorsement from Indiana Gov. Mike Pence could help him buck recent polls and carry the Hoosier State.

But while Cruz is campaigning with Indiana's governor, Trump has been touring the state with a living Indiana legend: former Indiana University basketball coach Bobby Knight.

Introducing Trump at a rally last week, Knight gave the presidential candidate the ultimate compliment: "I'll tell you," he said to a cheering crowd, "that sumbitch could play for me."

Knight won three national championships with Indiana. He also developed a national reputation as a blunt, profane coach who threw chairs onto the court and — at times — physically assaulted his players.

Trump made it clear he had no problem with that. "Tough, tough," he said about Knight. "Would you say he was tough enough? Would you say? And not just tough," Trump continued. "Smart, tactical. He was a winner."

Knight is the latest in a growing rogues' gallery of controversial and outspoken athletes and coaches to side with Trump.

Trump recently bragged about an endorsement from Mike Tyson - the heavyweight boxer who served time for rape and infamously bit off a chunk of Evander Holyfield's ear.

He's also won public backing from cigarette-smoking, club-throwing golfer John Daly, and rainbow-haired NBA star Dennis Rodman, who calls North Korean dictator Kim Jong-un a friend.

Last month, Trump campaigned with Buffalo Bills coach Rex Ryan, who never shies away from a fight with the New York tabloids. Ryan praised Trump for always saying what's on his mind. "A lot of people want to say the same thing," he said, "But there's a big difference. They don't have the courage to say it. They all think it, but they don't have the courage to say it."

Other athletes to endorse Trump to one degree or another – whether it's a simple tweet, a conspicuously placed "Make America Great Again" hat in a locker – include foul-mouthed former Braves closer John Rocker, water cooler-smashing onetime Yankee Paul O'Neill, and New England Patriots quarterback Tom Brady.

ESPN commentator and Washington Post columnist Kevin Blackistone said there's a common theme to all these Trump endorsers. "Maybe a collective middle finger," he said. "Because they have all thumbed their noses at authority. At institutional organizations, and continued to do things as they wanted to do it, regardless of the rules and regulations before."

All of these men are like Trump — they're loud, brash, outliers in a field that's otherwise pretty bland. "The same way that Trump talks about political correctness, and how he's not a part of that, is the same thing that these guys said throughout their careers all the time," said Will Leitch, who writes about culture for Bloomberg Politics, and founded the sports website Deadspin. "John Daly would say, I'm the one interesting golfer. I'm smoking and drinking beer. Because that's what real people do. Not like these stuck-up golfers.

Sound familiar? Days after aides promised Trump would begin to act more like a traditional presidential candidate, Trump promised a crowd of supporters he'd continue to stay off-script. "I could change to presidential so easy," he said. "That would be much easier than doing what I'm doing now. Because I could talk nice and calm and everyone would fall asleep after ten minutes."

And Leitch said Knight and Trump both have a strategic love/hate relationship with reporters. [Knight] would always get into fights with media but it was always staged for television," said Leitch.

Here's a highlight reel ESPN compiled of Knight's most memorable clashes with the media:

But, Leitch argued, "he realized it helped him maximize his influence...Bobby Knight knew how to manipulate the media."

Again — just like Trump. The candidate regularly refers to the traveling press corps as, "disgusting reporters, horrible people," but has acknowledged that he's benefited from wall-to-wall coverage.

Most political observers don't think endorsements count for much - and in this particular case, Leitch agreed. "I think your average person that loved Bobby Knight - that person was voting for Trump. I don't think there's any question."

And Knight isn't exactly offering compelling reasons for undecided voters to back Trump. When NPR's Scott Simon asked Knight what he thought of Trump's domestic policy, Knight responded, "How the hell do I know what I think about domestic issues? That's for someone much smarter than I am."

"You've got to understand that I'm just talking about a guy that I think has all those things that need to be done," he told Weekend Edition. "He's my choice for the guy to do it. It's just that simple."

Copyright 2020 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Scott Detrow is a political correspondent for NPR. He covers the 2020 presidential campaign and co-hosts the NPR Politics Podcast.
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