Following latest remarks, would NBA ever silence Charles Barkley?
Conflama is the combustible mix of conflict and drama. It’s like dropping a Mentos in a two-liter bottle of soda. It’s one of the secrets behind the NBA’s stunning ascent.
But the “Family Feud” feel of professional basketball has reached a pivotal crossroad.
Could the NBA ever pacify one of its most unlikeable stars in an effort to mute its most popular voice?
Would Commissioner Adam Silver ever sign off on an attempt to muzzle Charles Barkley?
“They’d have to fire me first,” Barkley said on Wednesday. “Because you don’t get to pick and choose. They would be cherry-picking if they wanted to decide what I could talk about, telling me, ‘You can go here, but we don’t want you to go there.’ I would make them fire me if that situation ever arises.”
That’s reassuring, and exactly what you’d expect to hear from one of the most candid, entertaining players in league history.
But the NBA’s latest conflict is fraught with danger.
It all started when Barkley lit into Green’s on-court antics during the Warriors’ Game 1 victory over the Pelicans, when the former Suns star unloaded on one of the dirtiest players in the league, a player with supreme arrogance and no respect for the physical welfare of others.
“I just want somebody to punch him in the face,” Barkley said at halftime. “I’m telling you, I want to punch his (backside) in the face. I do.”
Barkley comes with his own context, something Valley fans learned and embraced a long time ago. He is fearless and funny, a broadcaster that speaks hard truths in a forceful yet farcical manner. His viewpoints are uncensored, unsafe and satirical. They are rooted in comedy, which is meant to be dangerous, challenging and absurd.
They sound just like the guy sitting next to you at a sports bar: relatable, raw and very real.
Green’s initial response was indignant, appropriate and fair. He challenged Barkley to follow up on his tough talk in person, to punch him in the face away from the court, where their paths have frequently crossed in the past. That’s where the story should’ve ended.
“Obviously, I’m not going to fight the guy,” Barkley said. “And that’s why this thing is blown way out of proportion.”
But after his press conference, Green took this fight to another level. He mentioned that TNT President David Levy was a personal friend, and shouldn’t tolerate a broadcaster that speaks of NBA players in such unflattering terms. He was essentially challenging a network partner to play the political game, shielding the players who create content, ratings and revenue.
Barkley apologized for his comments on Wednesday, mostly for the fools who took his words literally. He also made it clear he will not change his acerbic style or shoot-from-the-hip mentality. And if the NBA wants more than contrition from Barkley, it would be making a huge mistake, swallowing a serious risk in the process.
In recent years, the NBA has become a global phenomenon, becoming the second-most popular sport on the planet. Social media engagement ranks ahead of the English Premier League and far outpaces the NFL. The league’s global appeal is attributed to the athleticism and artistry of the current NBA, where dunks and three-point shots are powerful currency, where players are easily identifiable and don’t wear helmets.
NBA stars also care deeply about their individual brands. They rise above the homogenous personalities that marginalize the NHL and Major League Baseball, sports that condemn those who divert away from the group.
But the NBA has learned that conflict sells, a landscape where Donovan Mitchell and Ben Simmons argue over the definition of a rookie; where Lance Stephenson blows in the ear of LeBron James; where Terry Rozier wears a Drew Bledsoe jersey to troll Eric Bledsoe; where Russell Westbrook and Kevin Durant went from teammates to mortal enemies.
The never-ending hissing matches reflect a league that smartly celebrates dissenting opinions, understanding the distasteful spin control so obvious in most other sports. And that’s why Barkley is so important, and why his mouth has suddenly become a referendum on the future of the NBA.
For the past few years, NBA Hall of Famer has ripped the parity and quality of the NBA. He frequently mocks halftime viewers for not changing the channel, for sticking with non-competitive games and a league populated by “super teams” and underdeveloped players.
Despite his harsh opinions, the NBA’s regular-season ratings in 2017-18 reached a four-year high, where viewers are tuning in even when the league’s most influential voice is imploring them to flee. Meanwhile, the 2018 postseason has exceeded all expectations, and we’re barely out of the first round.
The NFL would never let this kind of mutiny happen, dutifully assembling broadcast teams that can speak for hours and say nothing of interest, and nothing that would damage the brand.
To the contrary, the NBA has allowed Barkley to do what he does best, aware that his candor and criticisms make fans believe and trust in their viewing experience. Unlike other professional sports, basketball fans don’t feel duped, disrespected, trapped in an endless spin cycle.
Barkley’s opinions always seem to confirm what we’re thinking. The more he rips the NBA, the safer fans feel while watching the on-court product. He makes the audience trust the product because we live in a world where guys like Barkley are not tolerated. They’re fired for not playing the game, the one that makes all of us look stupid.
Fortunately, the NBA can’t be that shortsighted.
Reach Bickley at email@example.com. Listen to Bickley & Marotta weekdays from 10 a.m. – 2 p.m. on 98.7 FM Arizona’s Sports Station.
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