Charles Barkley might become a television analyst for the Saudi Arabia-backed LIV golf tour. He told the New York Post that he recently had dinner with LIV CEO Greg Norman about the job.
Here’s hoping he doesn’t take it.
This is not because of the ethical issues of being employed by a repressive regime looking to use golf to improve its image. Barkley is correct when he dismissed heated criticism of the tour as “selective outrage.”
“I told [Norman], ‘Listen, they are making up words like ‘blood money’ and ‘sports washing,’” Barkley told the newspaper. “We have all taken ‘blood money’ and we all have ‘sports washed’ something so I don’t like those words, to be honest with you.
“If you are in pro sports, you are taking some type of money from not a great cause,” he continued.
In a perfect world golfers and media wouldn’t get involved with LIV due to the Saudi’s track record on human rights. This is not a perfect world, though. This is a world where the current American president just exchanged a fist pump with the Saudi crown prince while a former president hosts the tour at one of his golf courses.
Moral decisions are individual decisions and Barkley is free to make his — just as everyone is free to judge that decision. He has never been one to be fazed by the reaction. And he’s correct that if everyone traced the roots of their money, almost everyone would come across something uncomfortable via a bank or a client or an investor.
It may not be direct compensation from the Saudis, but it’s something.
So, to be clear, Barkley is free to choose his path. The issue here isn’t necessarily the job he would be accepting, but how he would be able to perform that job.
Barkley is a coveted broadcaster and commercial pitchman because he is fearless in offering his opinions, not merely on basketball but social issues, politics, pop culture and nearly any other topic. His main television gig — TNT’s “Inside the NBA” — is far and away the best studio show in sports because it allows Barkley to have near total creative freedom. He is equal parts serious and unserious, funny and poignant, introspective and irreverent.
Along with Kenny Smith, Shaquille O’Neal and Ernie Johnson, an otherwise mundane telecast has turned into a cultural force that can be required viewing, even for those who don’t care about the breakdown of, say, Boston’s first-half offense.
TNT lets Barkley be Barkley. It stands by him when controversy inevitably ensues. It protects him when he is called politically incorrect or angers star players or calls out team owners or insults league executives.
By consistently expressing his true opinion on any and all topics — from gun control to Draymond Green — Barkley is nearly all powerful. He is an important voice for the country, the rare public figure who can — and does — say whatever he wants whenever he wants.
That’s because he works for an American media company.
LIV is anything but that.
Will he be able to speak his mind on this fledgling golf broadcast or even about this golf tour, let alone anything else? Is this the end of Barkley … albeit with a pile of money to his name?
The Saudis have never shown even a modicum of understanding, let alone respect, for free speech or western-style journalism. The media there is state run and tasked with promoting national unity and the greatness of the kingdom. It silences fledgling outlets and has a long track record of imprisoning and torturing anyone who strays from the government narrative. The Saudis are no better to foreign media, most famously being accused of murdering Washington Post journalist Jamal Khashoggi, an act even LIV acolyte Phil Mickelson has said he believes they are guilty of doing.
Even in the first few weeks of the LIV Tour, it tried to shut down lines of questioning, ended interviews and expelled reporters from group press sessions. And that’s just golf.
This isn’t the NBA. This isn’t America. This is LIV.
Barkley can no doubt conform. And perhaps for the kind of money that would double or triple his TNT salary and cover lost endorsements in the States he will gladly stay between the Saudi-painted lines.
He is capable of cracking jokes and livening up the broadcast without ruffling feathers. If he thinks it will be like working for Turner though, he’s kidding himself.
Is that what we want out of Charles Barkley? Is that what Barkley wants out of himself and his career?
It’s his decision and he’s free to do it; even if it seems uncomfortable for a man who so benefitted from freedom of speech to sign up with people who don’t believe in it.
For everyone who cherishes Barkley’s unfiltered voice and intrepid opinions, losing Barkley to LIV might prove to be a real loss. He has too much to offer sports fans and Americans in general to just shut up and cash a check.
So here’s hoping he says no. Here’s hoping he’s still Charles Barkley.