If I live to be 1,000 years old, I will never understand the politics of Charles Barkley. Given that the hoops legend and TNT NBA studio host has a platform across all media for his political insights and given that when he talks about the world off the athletic field, his often trenchant, no bullshit statements tend to go viral, what he says truly does matter. Yet the clarity of Barkley’s words are not matched by his politics. His world view is about as contradictory and confusing as seeing a portly six-foot-four power forward lead the NBA in rebounding and become a Hall of Famer. If Sir Charles’s politics are as jarringly divergent as his on-court presence, at least his game has never ceased to inspire. His off-court pontificating can make you cheer one moment and rage the next.
This week Barkley made a stirring call for the NBA to move the 2017 All-Star Game from Charlotte, North Carolina. The state has passed a brutal law, HB 2, targeting the LGBT community, with a laser-focus on the demonization of the transgender community. It is rare in the hyper-macho world of men’s sports to see courage in the face of anti-LGBT bigotry, especially from the stars of Barkley’s generation. But there he was on CNN saying, “As a black person, I’m against any form of discrimination—against whites, Hispanics, gays, lesbians, however you want to phrase it. It’s my job, with the position of power that I’m in and being able to be on television, I’m supposed to stand up for the people who can’t stand up for themselves. So, I think the NBA should move the All-Star game from Charlotte.”
It is a beautiful sentiment: “Standing up for people who can’t stand up for themselves.” Hearing them, I immediately thought of the words Dr. Martin Luther King spoke to Olympian John Carlos in 1968 about why he needed to go back to Memphis despite the death threats swirling around his head, saying, “I have to go back and stand for those that won’t stand for themselves, and I have to go back for those that can’t stand for themselves.”
Sure enough Barkley has similarly spoken out against racism and anti-immigrant hysteria and has verbally championed, like few others in public life, the economically ravaged. Barkley has said, “My No. 1 priority is to help poor people. In this country, 90% of the money is controlled by 10% of the people, and that’s not right”; and “It’s rich people vs. poor people and right now poor people are getting screwed.”
Yet somehow this moral compass does not extend to those suffering under the violence of police brutality. In 2014, as the people in Ferguson raged after learning that Officer Darren Wilson would not even be charged in the shooting death of Michael Brown, he said, “Them jackasses who are looting—those aren’t real black people, those are scumbags” He also said, “If it wasn’t for the cops we would be living in the Wild, Wild West in our neighborhoods.”
What is stunning about these words are not only how offensive, wrongheaded, and ignorant they are—a subject former NBA player Etan Thomas covered brilliantly in his article here at The Nation—it’s their staggering lack of empathy. People have seen family and friends die at the hands of police and are not only being denied justice. They are being denied a damn trial. That is the very epitome of the disenfranchisement and voicelessness that Charles Barkley decries. Many in the #BlackLivesMatter movement and beyond were furious at Barkley, as right-wing websites gleefully picked up his comments. But many others made an effort to respectfully try to engage with him, to speak about how his passion for the oppressed should extend to those raising the banner that black lives do indeed matter. His response was to say to critics, “Kiss my ass.”
I don’t pretend to know how Charles Barkley’s mind processes the myriad injustices around him or why his love for the poor becomes contempt when “poor” becomes “poor, black, and angry as hell at police violence.” Maybe that’s a question for a psychiatrist more than a sportswriter. But on this day, at this moment, it is worth remembering those past statements—and not whitewash them—while we also applaud the fact that he did speak out against HB 2. It is worth celebrating that he has told Commissioner Adam Silver to stop dithering and have the gumption to say that the NBA has a responsibility to stand up against politically organized hate. His words matter, which is why one wishes he would choose them more carefully when it comes to those shot dead by police, with few willing to speak out on their behalf. Standing up for those who can’t stand up for themselves applies to attacked and embattled LGBT communities throughout North Carolina, Mississippi, and perhaps soon South Carolina as well. But it must also apply to Michael Brown, Sandra Bland, Tamir Rice, and all who were rendered voiceless by police before their time.