Sports Outside the Beltway

“Inside the NBA” Confronts Race and Other TV Taboos

Isaac Chotiner explains why, in his view, “Inside the NBA” is the best sports show on television.

In a recent edition of “Inside the NBA,” TNT’s long-running studio show, Charles Barkley badly mangled a word’s pronunciation. Barkley is one of the show’s co-hosts, and is very comfortable on television to boot, so he continued speaking without much of a pause. Ernie Johnson, the show’s moderator, patiently waited for him to finish his point, then immediately began chiding him for the mistake. By the time the segment had finished, not only had Barkley been thoroughly teased by his on-air counterparts (Kenny Smith is the other) but the technical wizards behind the scenes had put up graphics mocking Barkley’s pronunciation. A replay of the former star’s rhetorical misstep aired throughout the night.

This incident may seem like typical sports-show banter, but it was, in fact, unique in two respects. First, it is hard to think of another show where a white moderator (Johnson) would tease a black colleague (Barkley) about the way he speaks. Second, stars of Barkley’s magnitude are rarely shown anything other than fawning respect on television, even when, as is usually the case, they have nothing insightful to say. What has made “Inside the NBA” the best program of its type is precisely this willingness to confront race and fame without kid gloves. As a result, it is the rare sports show that has both entertainment value and social value too.


he reason all this works so well, even if it isn’t always laugh-out-loud funny, is because it is such a refreshing departure from the rest of sports television. For anyone who has ever played or watched basketball, race is the great unspoken issue, the elephant in the room. This is not to say that other writers and commentators never write about race and sports (they do). But it is rare, if not unheard of, for top television commentators to ignore political correctness and make the same kinds of comments one hears from friends on the basketball court. Most commentary on race and sports can be found in opinion columns (where it is generally deadly serious and dull) or on local talk radio (where the discussion is driven, as TNR’s Jason Zengerle recently noted, by hosts and callers who are usually white). For a national television show to confront the issue and talk about it the way average people do is a breath of fresh air to say the least. Moreover, by defying the conventions of political correctness, the show does America a real service: It makes it that much more acceptable to talk about race honestly, without fear of violating taboos. Treating race in a stilted, formal way or ignoring it altogether–as most mainstream sports commentators do–just drives the subject deeper underground; and that, in the long-run, serves neither basketball nor the country well.

But race isn’t the only place “Inside the NBA” departs from television-sports orthodoxy. A perennial source of frustration for sports fans is the obsequiousness shown to ex-players by the media. They are hired as hosts and analysts despite having no talent or likeability on air (think Julius Erving), and their opinions are shown considerable deference even when clichéd and boring (think Scottie Pippen). You will often hear another commentator say something like: You’ve gotta respect what Scottie has to say; he has won championships–even when Scottie’s comment is neither insightful nor correct. This tiresome state of affairs has been completely turned on its head by “Inside the NBA.” Barkley may have been one of the ten best players of the past twenty years, but he is by no means above reproach on the set. His comments are frequently challenged, his lack of championship rings is often mocked (usually by Smith, who despite having been the far lesser player has two), and his weight is constantly ridiculed by on-screen graphics. The effect of all of this is to humanize Barkley (who, it should be said, good-naturedly goes along with all the jokes). By taking Barkley off the pedestal normally reserved for those with his skill level, the show greatly expands its appeal.

I’m at best a casual fan of the NBA, having hardly watched it since Michael Jordan’s most recent retirement. Still, “Inside the NBA” is a terrific show and Barkely remains one of the most engaging figures in sports television.

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