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Charles in Charge: Barkley Takes the High Road on Ferguson and Race

1-Patrick-henningsen-BW1Patrick Henningsen
21st Century Wire

It seems that everywhere you turn, you hear people clamoring for competent and wise leadership.  Most will tell you, it’s all but nonexistent in politics. As the old saying goes, ‘Many are called, few are chosen’.

One area in which politicians and pundits constantly fall down on is over the issue of race in America. On a good day it’s a mine field, and on a bad day it’s the pit of Acheron. Too often, the conversation begins with race but then rapidly deteriorates into an emotive, politicized argument over perceived privilege and class.

After all the maneuvering and jockeying for position, two directions emerge – a high road, and a low road. The low road is ready made – you simply tap into existing angst and envy on the street, lay blame and use that to assemble your political foot soldiers. Once they’ve externalized their condition, the crowd can batten down the hatches and engage in siege politics. We are seeing some of this develop from events in Ferguson and New York, and consequently, it’s ripped open some old wounds in the process.

1-Al-Sharpton-FergusonSteamrolling along the low road are men like Al Sharpton (photo, left), masquerading as leaders, and using fear and identity politics in order to assemble violent street mobs, and thus creating the non-reality of and artificial construct of a race war. Ironically, the mob soon believes that ‘might is right’, and that unruly crowds should dispense justice. That is the low road.

Some have called this a regressive approach, embodied in the words of NAACP President Cornell William Brooks who recently quipped during an interview on CNN Situation Room, calling for a renewed march from Selma to Montgomery, when he said, “We want to turn back the clock 50 years”. Backwards, to year zero.

Perhaps that’s what the stepfather of the deceased Michael Brown, Louis Head, also meant when he said, “Burn it down. burn this bitch down!”, in front of black crowds in Ferguson. The primordial message he was sending out to the mobs was, ‘burn it down’ and start over at ‘year zero’. In this way, toying with mob rule is literally like playing with fire. History has already shown us many examples of where this road eventually leads to. By empowering street mobs, some men have achieved their vision of Year Zero, by returning their societies to a peasant economy, or a ‘classless’ society, but only to destructive ends.

The other road is arguably more rocky, steeper and with many more twists and turns. Along that road walks men like African-American sports icon Charles Barkley. Rather than falling in line with the party leadership, he’s the real vanguard, by fearlessly taking on the reality of the issue. According to Barkley, part of that reality requires that black America takes a look at itself first. This path has made Barkley a target of extreme criticism – from the black community.

Whereas men like Al Sharpton reinforces and recycles the nightmare of America’s past, Barkley represents the American dream…

1-Barkley-Ferguson
In his recent interview with Philadelphia radio show The Fanatic, Barkley attempted to set the Ferguson record straight in his own way, saying, “I know I’m black, but I’m always going to try to be honest and fair”. He proceeded to call out the looters and arsonists in Ferguson as “scumbags”, and added that there was “no excuse for people to be out there burning down people’s businesses, burning down police cars.”

It’s well known that professional sports in America are riddled with politically correct policing, with players and administrators being pressured to make, or not make, public statements in support of one issue or another, particularly regarding race. This played out in the NFL this week, with St. Louis Rams players paying homage to Michael Brown with “Hands up”. Conversely, instead of playing it safe and staying on the right side of the politically correct crowds, Barkley did the opposite and pushed the conversation into a completely new area, and it’s an area which some black Americans are comfortable going.

Unlike the running away hyperbole which has driven the national conversation on Ferguson, Barkley confounded all media pundits who seemed determined to politically charge the officer Darren Wilson vs. Michael Brown case with race, and police aggression. He went on to defend the police in Ferguson stating, “We can’t pick out certain incidents that don’t go our way and act like the cops are all bad,” he continued, later asking, “Do you know how bad some of these neighborhoods would be if it wasn’t for the cops?”

See Barkley’s controversial comments in this TV interview aired on CNN:

“That’s what I said, and that’s what I meant,” he said. “I ain’t shutting up, and I ain’t backing down.”

Barkley’s comments on Ferguson have drawn fury and scorn from certain academics and cultural gatekeepers, like black professor Jason Johnson from Hiram College in Ohio, who attacked Barkley, trying to pigeon hole him as ‘upper class’. Johnson complained, “He’s just an uninformed rich guy who is given way more credibility than he deserves when discussing racial and political issues in America.”

Johnson’s comments seem jaundiced and petty, but that’s probably because he’s not even in Barkley’s league. In fact, it’s comments like Johnson’s that Barkley warned about recently when he spoke of ‘the big dirty secret in black America‘, that is, blacks who put down other black because they are successful. In the West Indies, they call it the crabs in a bucket syndrome, and it rings true today more than ever.

Barkley responded to his critics on on TNT’s nationally televised pregame show, saying, “We’ve got a lot of race-baiters out there, and my goal in life being from Alabama ,is to always have an open and fair dialogue on race. My grandmother, the greatest person ever, always told me, you judge every person on their individual merits”.

Barkley’s core message is clearly one of individuals taking individual responsibility, rather than conceding to the mob, or claiming ‘collective entitlement’ through racial identification or political identity.

See the discussion between Barkley and colleagues Kenny Smith and Shaquille O’Neal here:

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=tJnNt34o8Qs
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Too often than not, academics (and politicians too) will underestimate an athlete’s level of competence when dealing with complex systems, or when contributing to important conversations. Their lazy underestimation always misses the obvious reality – athletes, especially successful team sports performers, didn’t make it through their careers by ever taking the low road.

Barkley grew up in America’s deep south, in Leeds, Alabama, in the, before winning a basketball scholarship to Auburn  University where he earned the memorable nickname, ‘The Round Mound of Rebound’.

He’s always been an underdog. Coming out of college, he defied all the critics by rising to become one of the best athletes and most memorable personalities in professional sports. The experts constantly wrote him off as being either ‘too short’ (6’5″) for his forward position, or ‘too fat’ (plus 300 lbs) to succeed professionally. I remember following Charles during summer tryouts for the 1984 Olympic Games in Los Angeles. It was one of the last Olympic games where amateur college players, and not professionals, were selected for the Team USA Basketball squad. Tryouts were run by Indiana University coach Bobby Knight – a fierce disciplinarian who had the near impossible job of paring a field of nearly 100 of the top college players in the US (undoubtedly one of the most talented classes in history, including Michael Jordan and Patrick Ewing) down to a roster of 12 players. The process was rigorous to say the least and Barkley made it all the way to the last round of cuts, but did not make the Olympic team. My friends and I were gutted, but Barkley became a crowd favorite from that point on because he was recognized as the underdog. Back then, the American Dream, or ideal, had a lot to do with the concept of the underdog. Back then we were told by our betters that coming up through the ranks built character, adversity builds character and that every cloud has a silver lining, and so on. I believe the leadership qualities Barkley exhibited later on have a lot to do with his ability to emerge from this underdog status.

Immediately after he was cut from Olympic tryouts, Barkley was the No.5 pick in the NBA draft, beginning his pro career with the Philadelphia 76’ers, and it wasn’t long before he came to dominate what is arguably the most competitive sports league in the world, in a sport that was once thought to be a ‘big man’s game’.

He went on to dominate on the world stage. After being cut from the ’84 Olympic Squad, Barkley was later selected for the 1992 Barcelona games ‘Dream Team‘, as part of what was arguably the greatest sports team every assembled for a single tournament event. In 2006, he was inducted into the Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of FameFrom day one, he was what fans referred to a ‘class act’ – watch him as a 21 year old at the NBA draft:


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Philosophically, Barkley has shown himself to be ahead of the cultural curve, again, exhibiting leadership skills. When the media was  falling over themselves in the 1980’s and 90’s, obsessed with the concept of ‘role models’ for America’s challenged youth, Barkley did the hard thing, and showed intellectual character by challenging that politically correct, superficial idea by asking the rhetorical question of, ‘why must athlete’s be role models?’. Barkley argued then, “A million guys can dunk a basketball in jail; should they be role models?” 

His stance turned into a controversy of sorts after he ran his own “I am not a role model” slogan in a Nike commercial. It sparked a national debate with Barkley later arguing:

|I think the media demands that athletes be role models because there’s some jealousy involved. It’s as if they say, this is a young black kid playing a game for a living and making all this money, so we’re going to make it tough on him. And what they’re really doing is telling kids to look up to someone they can’t become, because not many people can be like we are. Kids can’t be like Michael Jordan.”

His success did not end on the basketball court. Following his retirement as a player, Barkley graduated again into international broadcasting, and is one of TV most popular commentators. This is down to his personality – he’s humble, but speaks his mind and does not cave into political correctness as so many other celebrities do. Normally, once a person achieves a certain level in entertainment or in broadcast media, the pressure to conform to politically correct police is immense. Either you comply, or you are marginalized by the mob, or worse – you’re out completely. This is why for so many, Charles Barkley is a breathe of fresh air. Instead of following the crowd, he’s always charted a unique path. In sports he was a success because he could lead by example, and in TV broadcasting he’s succeeded because of his ability to communicate different insights and remain diplomatic on air in a competitive environment full of big celebrities and even bigger egos.

Barkley’s ‘class act’ meant that he would also attract a number of corporate sponsors. Once again, ‘Many are called, few are chosen’… Barkley is living the American dream and without a doubt, every bit of success he’s achieved – 16 years playing the the world’s most competitive sports league, the Olympics, the TV career – was all born out of hard work and what appears to be an exceptional ability to work with others – and not from any sense of entitlement or identifying himself as a victim. So it’s no wonder why Charles did not automatically throw his lot in with the mob when Ferguson became a dominant national issue.

If there was one incident, however, which really shows his humility and integrity, it was the incident which took place in March 1991, during a game against the New Jersey Nets, where Barkley attempted to spit on an annoying, rabid fan who was heckling Barkley with racial slurs, but instead his spit hit a young girl. It snow-balled into a national story and Barkley was dragged through the coals, so to speak, and demonized by sports writers and news pundits alike. Barkley was temporarily suspended without pay, and fined $10,000 for the incident. As bad as things got, Barkley managed to turn that breakdown around by apologizing and developing a friendship with the girl and her family – creating something positive out of a dire situation.

Years later, after looking back on his sports career Barkley explained:

“I was fairly controversial, I guess, but I regret only one thing—the spitting incident. But you know what? It taught me a valuable lesson. It taught me that I was getting way too intense during the game. It let me know I wanted to win way too bad. I had to calm down. I wanted to win at all costs. Instead of playing the game the right way and respecting the game, I only thought about winning.”


GOING FOR GOLD: Barkley celebrates with Magic Johnson at ’92 game.

After hearing that statement by Barkley, I can’t help but think about the questionable political motives and methods of opportunists and instigators like Al Sharpton, AG Eric Holder and as Hillary Clinton did in her Boston speech yesterday, along with scores of other ‘race experts’ like Jason Johnson, or CNN’s Van Jones and Sunny Hostin, all currently being paraded across the national media in the wake of Ferguson and Staten Island – and all hell-bent on winning their political turf war by weaponizing the issue of ‘race’ in order to accumulate more political capital (more funds and monolithic votes). Even though there is no racial profiling or evidence of race in both the Michael Brown and Eric Garner cases, the race merchants hope to conduct their street mobs, falsely pitting race against race, class against class, American against American.

In their obsession to win on emotive grounds, they’re not playing the political game with respect. More shocking is that these political agitators feel they are somehow fit to lead America into the 21st century. They are not. Fomenting divisive identity politics is not what leaders do.

The high road is ultimately more difficult and complex. It’s hard work. It requires a higher degree of self introspection, patience, creativity and courage, but ultimately, it yields a better, more robust legacy.

By opting the hard road, Barkley exudes the kind of leadership qualities that America is sorely lacking during times like these.

They could all still learn a thing or two from Sir Charles.

READ MORE FERGUSON NEWS AT: 21st Century Wire Ferguson Files

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We are a North American and European-based, grass-roots, independent blog offering geopolitical news and media analysis, working with an array of volunteer contributors who write and help to analyse news and opinion from around the world.
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