Charles Barkley declared in 1993 that he was not a role model. After a career of clumsy comments, it was possibly the most insightful thing he'd said up to that point (even if his intention wasn't to be self-reflective). We as a society don't need wisdom bestowed upon us from young and grotesquely-paid professional athletes. Professional athletes, for the most part, should be seen and not heard. We should focus on what they do (how they compete and comport themselves as professionals) and not what they have to say about matters of social importance. Most athletes' reactions to the George Zimmerman verdict is the latest example of how players fail as pundits or voices of reason. This is especially true when the subject is race.
That said, there is a collective voice of clarity emerging from the world of sports. It involves athletes. Sort of. I'm referring to former athletes-turned-media figures who often possess a wisdom and candidness not heard from such figures in any medium or genre. Among the leaders of this new contingent is a former "Round Mound of Rebound" once known for a mouth as big as his butt, who begged off from any influence beyond his performance on the court.
Charles Barkley has become a role model. Or, at least, a voice worthy of a place at the table of public discourse. He's particularly candid and refreshing when it comes to matters of race. This past season, when his fellow-panelist, Doug Gottlieb, made an awkward on-air joke regarding race, saying he was bringing the "White man's perspective" to CBS' coverage of the NCAA tournament, it set flame to the Twitter-verse. Sir Charles sought to defuse the matter later that evening, taking it upon himself to interject, completely out of context, criticizing those who sought to make it into an issue, dismissing the "joke" as "no big deal." More recently, Barkley was the first public figure of color to agree with the decision in the case of Trayvon Martin. He told Maria Bartiromo on CNBC, in a thoughtful commentary, that the events were tragic and the laws were flawed, but the jury had done it's duty. He also chastised the media for not having a "pure heart." Finally, he was candid on the matter of racism being a two-way street, noting that, "There are a lot of black people who are racist."
Jalen Rose, the former Pacers guard and Fab-Five-alum from the University of Michigan, is a generation younger than Barkley, but he's established himself through his work on TNT and ESPN as a smooth and cerebral and charming figure operating within the confines of sports commentary (he's also a philanthropist, with his own charter school in Detroit). Rose is particularly impressive in flexing his intellectual muscle on The Jalen Rose Show, his regular podcast on Grantland Network, which focuses on the sports world in general but often delves into matters beyond the games themselves.
Among the most notable voices in this emerging area is Jason Whitlock. The former Ball State lineman has been writing award-winning and noteworthy columns for a variety of sources since his graduation as a journalism major in the early '90s. There's been controversy. And burned bridges. And mistakes. And apologies. I have a hard time connecting his dots sometimes, but there's been a collection of regular and remarkable commentary that bridges sports and American society. Sports is a metaphor for America. No one in media understands this better than Whitlock, and no journalist has been as aggressive and courageous in pursuing this connection as a means of conversation. Especially when it comes to race.
Recent columns from Whitlock on Fox Sports have criticized LeBron and Serena and Tiger. He's also, at times, defended these figures and paid them due homage. He's been frank about Trayvon Martin and Riley Cooper. He's also been frank about his own misgivings. And the man has been devastating in his critique of hip-hop culture, calling out beloved figures like Jay-Z and President Obama (via proxy of the former). His commentary about gun control in the wake of the murder-suicide involving Kansas City Chiefs linebacker Jovan Belcher gave Bob Costas (via paraphrase of a Whitlock column, at halftime of Sunday Night Football) the somber and reflective voice much of America needed at the moment.
Former-athletes-turned-media figures have a unique perspective on race and other matters of importance. Many are African-American, and many are privy to experiences that are unique to society but useful to our collective conversation.
It's a conversation -- one of sports and race -- that defines America in many ways. Let it be heard.