An Anti-Barkley Intervention

So I was just surfing around the various magazine and newspaper databases, trying to find a way to link Barkley and McEnroe, and I came across this cognitive dissonance-inducing passage from The New Republic:

The people who hand out endorsement money are not just culturally neutral but, often, morally neutral. Witness whiner John McEnroe, who routinely berated mild-mannered, low-paid officials, or skinhead linebacker Brian Bosworth, who signed with Gillette for Right Guard ads after being suspended for steroid use. The most famous case is behemoth hoopster Charles Barkley, noted for barroom brawls, talking trash on the court, spitting at a heckling fan (he missed and hit a little girl) and embarrassing America by beating up on a scrawny member of the hapless Angolan basketball team during the 1992 Olympic "dream team" walkover, drawing hisses from the fans in Barcelona. ("How did I know he didn’t have a spear?" Barkley asked.) Nike has a Barkley commercial whose theme is "I am not a role model." Clearly, Nike ceo Phil Knight realizes that Barkley’s badness only elevates him in the eyes of poor black kids who pay $150 for sneakers. Meanwhile, by holding Barkley et al. up for emulation, Knight cuts the chances that these kids will ever be able to really afford such things (at least with legitimate income). Talking trash doesn’t go very far in a job interview. And that’s not just a throwaway line; a big economic hurdle facing inner-city kids is their cultural aversion to a tool that most of us have shamelessly exploited at some point in our careers: the strategic use of humility and, yes, abject subservience.

The writer is Robert Wright, someone who, under other circumstances, I’ve liked very much. In fact, what I’ve liked about him in particular is his ability, usually as it relates to politics,to see the real facts of things rather than the hype-narrative that tends to obscure the facts. There’s something appealingly unemotional about him, or, as the blogger Unfogged wrote: "If Wright were supposed to be a robot, we’d say it was an unsubtle portrayal."

My point is this: Barkley’s done some pretty unappealing things in his day. The punching of the Angola player, for instance, followed by the inexcusably racist comment. His bad boy thing is part of the reason I like him, but it presents some moral problems. Barkley explains it, or explains it away, like this:

I like spicy things, to get discussions started, whether we’re talking role models or racism, rookies or Rodman. I was chosen for some reason to live this, and if all I do is make a lot of money and never speak out for anybody or myself, that would be a waste. I’ve said and done some things wrong, but I can honestly say I’ve done more right than wrong. Am I going to heaven? It’s going to be a real close vote.

Part of what I love about Barkley is that we can watch him, week to week, working through in public what it means to be a good man, and the truth is that there are very few public figures who make their introspection that available, that vulnerable, to our inspection. In that sense, Nike commercial notwithstanding, he is a role model. But part of what I like, also, is that sometimes he’s a bad man.

Very confusing.


p.s. I got that quote, by the way, from this website, which collects the great Barkleyisms as a "tribute to the greatest interviewee in the history of sports." I think it’s going to be an invaluable resource for us.

p.p.s. Apparently there’s also a blog devoted to Barkley’s quotes. I haven’t delved too deep into it yet, but I’m getting the feeling there’s a whole Barkley cult out there that we’re on the verge of joining. Who knew?

Author: Masculinity and Its Discontents

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