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Opinion: Charles Barkley’s flirtation with LIV Golf looks like one big troll

Charles Barkley’s appeal is distinct, but easy to understand. Even when he’s wrong, he’s funny. Even when he’s completely uninformed, he’s compelling. Even when he’s the crotchety old man railing against the modern NBA style of play or soft players, at least he has the guts to say it, blowback be damned.

Knutsford (02/08 – 25.00) Charles Barkley’s appeal is distinct, but easy to understand. Even when he’s wrong, he’s funny. Even when he’s completely uninformed, he’s compelling. Even when he’s the crotchety old man railing against the modern NBA style of play or soft players, at least he has the guts to say it, blowback be damned.

Barkley’s eagerness to go where few former stars are willing to go — regardless of whose feelings he might hurt — has made him a one-of-a-kind star on the NBA’s most important show. The moment he walks away from TNT’s pregame and halftime broadcasts — and the 59-year-old has threatened many times before that he wants to retire at 60 — it’s not an understatement to say the entire universe of basketball discourse will feel different.

That’s the kind of influence Barkley has. And if he leaves that all behind to go work for the controversial, Saudi-backed LIV Golf, a possibility he has now acknowledged in an interview with the New York Post, it will only be for one reason: Because he knows he’s not supposed to.

At this stage of Barkley’s life and career, he’s got it pretty good. He reportedly makes about $10 million a year from TNT, a job that requires little more of him than going into a studio a couple of times a week during the NBA season and being Charles Barkley. He gets to dabble in college basketball during the NCAA Tournament, and he is in demand for whatever other opportunities pique his interest, whether it’s speaking, charity work or playing golf very poorly in public, something he has done on numerous occasions.

Why would Barkley give up all of that for LIV, a possibility that is serious enough for him to discuss it over dinner recently with Greg Norman? Maybe it’s money, though it’s hard to imagine anything the Saudis offer will change his life financially at this point. It’s certainly not the platform, which isn’t and never will be as significant as what he has on “Inside the NBA.” And it’s not because it will do much for his public image. If anything, Barkley — whose Q-rating is probably closer to 100 percent than any other person in sports broadcasting — would become as divisive as Phil Mickelson, Dustin Johnson and the scores of others who have gone to work for Saudi Arabia’s sportswashing operations.

But maybe that disapproval is precisely what Barkley is chasing. After all, as Barkley once wrote in his autobiography: “I don’t create controversies. They’re there long before I open my mouth. I just bring them to your attention.”

Has Barkley gotten too comfortable?

To the extent Barkley was a controversial figure, particularly during his playing days, it was a well-earned reputation. There was the 1997 incident when he threw a man through the window of a bar. There was the “I Am Not a Role Model” Nike commercial at the peak of his playing career. There was a DUI arrest in 2008, a high-stakes gambling habit that has caused him some problematic headlines over the years and the many insensitive comments for which he’s later apologized.

But with Barkley it usually all gets forgiven, not just because he owns up to mistakes but because there is story after story of Barkley’s kindness in the most random circumstances. In one famous instance, a couple of years ago, he traveled to Iowa for the funeral of a scientist he met and ultimately befriended at a hotel bar in Sacramento. Roughly a week ago, he generated headlines at a celebrity golf tournament when he got up on stage and said, “If you’re gay or transgender, I love you. And if anybody gives you (expletive), you tell them Charles said ‘(expletive) you.’”

In that sense, Barkley is one of the most relatable superstars of our time, capable of indulging his worst impulses while fundamentally striving for decency and humanity. But perhaps near-universal adoration these days is just too comfortable for someone whose defiance of expectations and distaste of decorum have been central to his entire existence.

It’s hard to see any angle here other than two iconoclastic brands basking in the poking and prodding of convention while finding comfort in each other’s arms.

LIV lacks credibility

First of all, from LIV’s standpoint, having Barkley become the face of its media apparatus makes no sense. Sure, if Barkley makes the move, LIV will get an initial pop of curiosity. It will undoubtedly inspire some people who wouldn’t otherwise be interested in its product to tune in, at least in the beginning.

But in the bigger picture, LIV’s most significant challenge has nothing to do with the casual viewers Barkley might attract or even the political backlash of being funded by a repressive foreign regime. In its early days, LIV’s biggest problem is a lack of credibility as a truly competitive enterprise with its 54-hole format, shotgun starts and hundreds of millions being doled out to golfers who are mostly past their prime and trying to cruise into retirement on a raft of Saudi dollars.

If LIV is ever going to connect with golf fans, it must shed the exhibition feel. But hiring a famous former NBA player who is objectively bad at this sport suggests that this isn’t actually serious golf but rather a well-paid hit-and-giggle.

Barkley’s interest, meanwhile, seems rooted in little more than trolling. Back in June, during an appearance on “The Pat McAfee Show,” Barkley quipped that he would be willing to “kill a relative — even one I liked!” for the $150 million and $200 million sums some of these golfers are getting from LIV.

That must have caught the attention of Norman, who came to Atlanta to have dinner with Sir Charles recently. And though Barkley told the New York Post he’s still just in the listening stage, his talking points seem almost like a pretext to rail against what he views as being overly moralistic or politically correct, regardless of what decision he makes.

“I told (Norman),” Barkley told the Post, “Listen, they are making up words, like ‘blood money’ and ‘sportswashing.’ I said, ‘We have all taken blood money and we all have sportswashed 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.”

This is, of course, the very same argument authoritarian regimes all over the world use to justify their horrendous acts. But the absence of total moral purity in capitalism doesn’t mean that all bad things are equally bad; it’s merely a thin justification for choosing the most problematic option.

Barkley is smart enough to know there’s a difference between the NBA selling its product to be broadcast in China and being on the payroll of an unprofitable sports venture being underwritten by Saudi Arabia’s billions. We can debate whether sportswashing actually works — it seems like these regimes often end up only drawing more attention to their human rights abuses than making them seem more palatable — but it’s not a concept the media made up out of thin air, as Barkley suggested. There’s a reason Saudi Arabia is doling out all this cash, and it doesn’t have much to do with inspiring its citizens to pick up golf clubs.

With all that said, it’s hard to begrudge anyone for taking the money, particularly when the entire Western world and every modern American president has been forced to perform a delicate dance with Saudi Arabia due to its strategic importance in Middle East affairs and the energy it can supply from its oil reserves.

Part of that dance has been encouraging Saudi leadership to foster a more open, less repressive society — and some of those incremental reforms have indeed happened under Mohammed bin Salman. From a human rights standpoint, Saudi Arabia isn’t close to where it should be, but it’s not as bad as it once was.

To deny that would be just as much of a logical fallacy as Barkley suggesting there’s no difference between working directly for the Saudis and endorsing companies like Nike or Apple, which may have had supply chains linked to forced Uyghur labor in China, according to a 2020 report from the Australian Strategic Policy Institute.

These distinctions and nuances are part of the world we live in. Ignoring them is unacceptable, but equating them with all human rights abuses around the globe is just as bad, because it gives power to those with the worst intentions.

The brand Barkley rode to iconic post-playing career status is telling it like it is, and fans love him for it. But if he rides off to LIV, it will only be because he doesn’t want the rest of us telling him how wrong he actually is.