Brow Beat

Charles Barkley Used His Saturday Night Live Monologue to Encourage Athletes to Keep Speaking Out About Politics

Charles Barkley hosted Saturday Night Live this week and used his monologue to speak out for—well, to speak out for speaking out. Specifically, Barkley addressed athletes’ rights to use their bully pulpit for whatever the hell they want to. He’s for it! The idea that athletes should refrain from talking about politics has been in the news lately, thanks to Laura Ingraham’s repulsive comments about LeBron James. But as Barkley points out, it’s always been in the news:

This country has a great tradition of athletes speaking their minds. Muhammad Ali changed the way people thought about Vietnam. Jim Brown had people thinking about race. Michael Jordan even thought it was okay for humans to play with Looney Tunes.

And throughout history, wherever there are black athletes speaking their minds, there are white establishment figures telling them to shut up. As he says in the monologue, Barkley can relate to what LeBron is going through with Ingraham on a personal level, since he was on the other end of one of Fox News’ racist trial balloons during the Obama years. After Barkley, Jay-Z, and Chris Rock attended the president’s birthday party in 2011, Fox ran what was possibly their worst headline ever: “Obama’s Hip-Hop Barbecue Didn’t Create Jobs.” A black athlete can make a political statement as innocuous as “going to the president’s birthday party sounds like fun” and still get the full treatment: the content doesn’t really matter, so why not speak out?

That’s certainly been Barkley’s policy, even though he hasn’t always been what you’d call consistent. He was famously a Republican until announcing in 2006 that he’d left the party because they’d “lost their minds,” he’s been a vocal critic of Donald Trump, and he was last seen helping keep Roy Moore out of office in his home state of Alabama. But he also noted during the monologue that “I’m proud to stand for the anthem,” putting himself not all that far from the president’s side of one of the loudest dog whistles anyone has ever blown. Far more troubling, however, was Barkley’s swipe at Michael Jordan for appearing in Space Jam. Maybe Jordan shouldn’t have starred in the famously terrible NBA/Looney Tunes mash-up. But if that’s true, what do you say about a guy who agreed to make a guest appearance?

Matthew Dessem is Brow Beat’s nights and weekends editor and the author of a biography of screenwriter and director Clyde Bruckman.