Sports programming is one of America’s great bastions of slavish conformity, ball-washing and non-thought, a place where a star athlete is commended for blindly following, in no particular order, his coach, his owner and the president of the United States. But into this world TNT thrust Charles Barkley, who spices up forgettable midseason games with politically incorrect gibes (“You still owe me 40 acres and a mule – I’ve been waiting on that a long damn time”) and self-deprecating gags (his halftime footrace against 67-year-old referee Dick Bavetta during the 2007 All-Star Game was one of the funniest sports highlights of the new century). Unlike every other sportscaster in the corporate-sponsored TV universe, Barkley doesn’t even pretend to care about most of the games, and sometimes he’ll even openly bash the product. (“We better not be doing the Bulls this year,” he once groused. “Man, they suck! Bunch of high school kids with $70 million contracts.”) In the history of gazillionaire athletes, Barkley is alone with Muhammad Ali in having both the gift of speaking his mind and the sense of humor to match. Owing to his Parkinson’s disease, we never got to experience the great second career in television commentary that should have belonged to Ali. But we did get Sir Charles, one of the few true things on the air today.
By Matt Taibbi