On a recent edition of "Inside the NBA," TNT's long-running studio show, Charles Barkley badly mangled a word's pronunciation. Barkley is one of the show's co-hosts, and is very comfortable on television to boot, so he continued speaking without much of a pause. Ernie Johnson, the show's moderator, patiently waited for him to finish his point, then immediately began chiding him for the mistake. By the time the segment had finished, not only had Barkley been thoroughly teased by his on-air counterparts (Kenny Smith is the other) but the technical wizards behind the scenes had put up graphics mocking Barkley's pronunciation. A replay of the former star's rhetorical misstep aired throughout the night.
This incident may seem like typical sports-show banter, but it was, in fact, unique in two respects. First, it is hard to think of another show where a white moderator (Johnson) would tease a black colleague (Barkley) about the way he speaks. Second, stars of Barkley's magnitude are rarely shown anything other than fawning respect on television, even when, as is usually the case, they have nothing insightful to say. What has made "Inside the NBA" the best program of its type is precisely this willingness to confront race and fame without kid gloves. As a result, it is the rare sports show that has both entertainment value and social value too.Johnson has adeptly hosted TNT's NBA studio show for well over a decade, but it wasn't until Turner Sports added Smith, a solid, unspectacular ex-player, that the program began to hit its stride. It was the decision to hire Barkley in 2000, however, that really set the show apart. Chuck, as he is called on the set, was not only a perennial all-star during his NBA days but a cultural icon as well. He starred in McDonald's ads, wrote books, flirted with running for governor of Alabama (as a Republican), and made controversial statements about not wanting to be a role model. He also addressed issues of politics and race openly, and sometimes controversially.
Barkley's carefree style soon rubbed off on his colleagues. It immediately became clear that the three men had remarkable chemistry, but it was the subject matter of their interplay that made "Inside the NBA" so fascinating. When Chinese star Yao Ming wished Smith a happy birthday in stilted English, the commentators spent the rest of the evening (and a few others) mocking the big man. When the subject of politics came up and Smith declared, "I ain't no Republican," Barkley responded that this must be correct, because Republicans didn't speak like that. Barkley and Smith can also frequently be heard making fun of "uncool" white players and their bad hair styles. (It should be noted, however, that last year Barkley argued that Steve Nash deserved the MVP award; some claimed that Nash won the award only because he is white.)
The reason all this works so well, even if it isn't always laugh-out-loud funny, is because it is such a refreshing departure from the rest of sports television. For anyone who has ever played or watched basketball, race is the great unspoken issue, the elephant in the room. This is not to say that other writers and commentators never write about race and sports (they do). But it is rare, if not unheard of, for top television commentators to ignore political correctness and make the same kinds of comments one hears from friends on the basketball court. Most commentary on race and sports can be found in opinion columns (where it is generally deadly serious and dull) or on local talk radio (where the discussion is driven, as TNR's Jason Zengerle recently noted, by hosts and callers who are usually white). For a national television show to confront the issue and talk about it the way average people do is a breath of fresh air to say the least. Moreover, by defying the conventions of political correctness, the show does America a real service: It makes it that much more acceptable to talk about race honestly, without fear of violating taboos. Treating race in a stilted, formal way or ignoring it altogether--as most mainstream sports commentators do--just drives the subject deeper underground; and that, in the long-run, serves neither basketball nor the country well.
But race isn't the only place "Inside the NBA" departs from television-sports orthodoxy. A perennial source of frustration for sports fans is the obsequiousness shown to ex-players by the media. They are hired as hosts and analysts despite having no talent or likeability on air (think Julius Erving), and their opinions are shown considerable deference even when clichéd and boring (think Scottie Pippen). You will often hear another commentator say something like: You've gotta respect what Scottie has to say; he has won championships--even when Scottie's comment is neither insightful nor correct. This tiresome state of affairs has been completely turned on its head by "Inside the NBA." Barkley may have been one of the ten best players of the past twenty years, but he is by no means above reproach on the set. His comments are frequently challenged, his lack of championship rings is often mocked (usually by Smith, who despite having been the far lesser player has two), and his weight is constantly ridiculed by on-screen graphics. The effect of all of this is to humanize Barkley (who, it should be said, good-naturedly goes along with all the jokes). By taking Barkley off the pedestal normally reserved for those with his skill level, the show greatly expands its appeal.
This is more than just enjoyable television, though: Knocking athletes from their exalted perch may be an important step towards a future that Barkley himself would like to see--a world where athletes are not role models. It is hard to disagree with his famous remark that "Just because I can dunk a basketball, that doesn't mean I should raise your kids." Suffice it to say that it would probably be best for children--adults, too, actually--to have heroes other than athletes; and not treating athletes like beacons of wisdom is a first step in this direction. Intentionally or not, Barkley and his cohorts have stumbled on a paradigm that, if embraced, could go some way towards modulating American culture's excessive hero-worship of athletes.
Admittedly, it would be difficult to put together other sports shows as good as "Inside the NBA." Johnson is a particularly funny and shrewd straight man, Smith is an engaging commentator, and there aren't many, if any, superstars with the talent and presence of Barkley. But producers of other shows don't even seem to be trying. Every other channel is filled with the same tired banter and boring paeans to the conventional sports wisdom. Even if ESPN and the major networks cannot find something as strong as this show, they could at least absorb some of the lessons of its success: Don't tread so carefully around race and don't treat stars like idols.
One of the most depressing things about this year's otherwise excellent NBA playoffs has been the lame coverage offered by ESPN and ABC. I turned on the television the other night to find that ESPN, not TNT, was carrying an important game. There was Scottie Pippen, one of the NBA's fifty greatest players and a six-time champion, spouting inane opinions. And there were his co-hosts, treating him as if he were a god.