Comments by Barkley nothing to laugh about

THE BALTIMORE SUN

For the sake of argument, we'll take Charles Barkley at his word that he was joking when he said, "See, that's why I hate white people," at the end of a response to a question about NBA groupies during an All-Star Weekend news briefing.

Even if the Phoenix forward was kidding -- and all who know him, coaches and teammates alike, say he was -- it was a stupid, childish thing to say from a man who has, during his NBA career, displayed a disturbing tendency toward saying and doing stupid and childish things.

But Barkley's reaction, to lash out at journalists in general and ESPN in particular for doing their job, was just the latest instance in a trend in which athletes speak before thinking, then blame the messengers for reporting their words.

How many times have you heard an athlete say something outlandish, find his statement in the newspaper or on "SportsCenter" or the radio, then find himself saying, "I was taken out of context"?

Barkley took that tack after Sunday's game, saying, "ESPN tried to make something out of nothing . . . I'm gonna get them back in the long run. They need me more than I need them. It was a joke, taken out of context."

His coach, Paul Westphal, added to the disinformation, telling the Philadelphia Daily News: "I feel sorry for people who don't have anything better to do than misinterpret what he says on purpose. It's as if they're looking around, waiting to be offended. If anybody can't take a joke better than that, they should find something to do with their time, eat more bran."

Sorry, gentlemen, but that won't wash. ESPN did air Barkley's preceding answer to the groupies question in its entirety, and then the racial comment. Afterward, the network sought out Barkley as well as Suns and league officials for comment, which is what a reputable journalistic organization does, but it was rebuffed.

And Westphal's supposition that there are people who will intentionally misinterpret Barkley may be true, but it then would be incumbent upon a thinking person to size up a situation before speaking off the cuff. The words "Charles Barkley" and "thinking person" have rarely been seen in the same sentence.

And if Barkley's comment was a reference to a dearth of black reporters on the beat, he ought to know that press row at virtually any NBA game is as culturally diverse as any sport can get.

Actually, the "taken out of context" line, when uttered by athletes, has some validity in one small sense.

Most newspapers, because of space limitations, cannot air full transcripts of exchanges, just as TV and radio outlets can't air full questions and answers because of time pressures, so the reader/viewer often can't see or hear everything that led up to or followed a remark.

However, what most athletes appear to mean when they complain about context is not space or time allotted to a story, but, rather, that someone has actually reported what was said, not what was meant.

Once again, mea culpas to Barkley and his fellow jocks, but the writing and broadcasting corps can't do that, and they wouldn't want us to do that, anyway.

The larger point in this situation is that Barkley, who once disavowed sections of his own autobiography, will have to bear some responsibility for opening his Grand Canyon-sized mouth without thinking about the surroundings and the consequences.

It will be interesting to see how Barkley's corporate sponsors and Alabama voters, whom he has talked about serving as governor someday, will take to this latest flap.

If his ego would permit it, Barkley might do well to have a chat with Detroit Pistons rookie Grant Hill, who does not plan to run for office, but says he lives his life as if he were going to, meaning he doesn't do or say things that would someday come back to haunt him.

Are you listening, Charles?

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