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Messy but live
Charles Barkley ditches the script on addressing the NBA's legacy of ignoring intimate partner violence.
There’s this horticultural school of thought that used to think removing the stamens from certain flowers would prolong their blooming. Stamens are the protruding filament clusters or individual tendrils that end in a burr of pollen, over what’s called an anther. Flowers, once they’ve opened, take a few days to “form” pollen, as pollen is the result of meiosis — a single cell dividing twice. Pollen isn’t “plant sperm”, but a microscopically small male organism that contains male gametes (sperm). A living thing. When pollen is brought in contact with the pistil of a flower, by bees, birds, human or other intervention, pollination occurs.
Once a flower has furled open it’s already begun to die. The plant isn’t going to reverse the energy it took to form the flower and in the case of cut flowers, the whole thing, from stem to bud, has been in a state of slowed deterioration since it was snipped from its parent. Mostly what removing the stamens will do is save your clothes from pollen stains if you brush up against the flowers, and save the surrounding surfaces from smears of the same. You get the bloom and less cleanup. You get the beautiful, handheld and proximal miracle of a flower with none of the messiness of life, striving to pass beyond the moment.
If you think this is too far an analogy for Charles Barkley, stay with me.
What I liked most was how annoyed he sounded.
“I — I got one more question for you. I don’t care if they said go to commercial, I got a serious question for you,” Barkley says to Adam Silver, across from him on the podium TNT set up outside Ball arena in Denver.
Barkley and Silver, along with Shaq, Ernie Johnson and Kenny Smith, all look like they’re floating over the crowd of fans behind them, where every now and then a person will pogo up to wave a sign or get the attention of someone they’re clearly on the phone with, a visual interruption to Silver’s answers in an otherwise prepped run-of-show. Barkley’s question is like that too, but it’s the first that Silver has let himself be drawn in by, mostly because unlike the others he’s got no choice in whether he can shift his attention away.
Before Silver realizes what’s coming, or maybe in that panicked part of the brain where time slows and your inner dialogue goes Here it comes, he smiles in response to Barkley saying “serious question”. Barkley, looking right at him, pauses before he continues and flicks his eyes down to the table. Smith’s are there too. Shaq and Johnson haven’t taken their eyes off Barkley and before the next words come out of his mouth, Silver, too, smooths over his expression.
There’s a couple disturbing incidents of domestic violence in the NBA right now. What are we doing to address that? But that is a serious — you can’t put your hands on women man. And we should be at the forefront in sports when men hitting women, so what are we as a league gonna do about that?
It is the perfect example of what to say when you aren’t sure how to say it or where to start. In 20 seconds, slowly and with time for verbal shifts, stumbles and emphasis all ending in one direct question, Barkley brings to light what the NBA has long been happy to keep in the dark. A polite dark, of murmured legalities and quiet postponement, but the dark all the same.
Barkley is so human in his frustration and Silver, in his strange and contortioning determination not to place a wrong foot in his response, so jarringly not. Silver first attempts to deflect by making a joke out of Barkley’s misworded disdain that the league is not leading among other pro sports in its penalties for IPV.
“That’s an area where we’re not looking to compete against other leagues — when you say forefront,” Silver half chuckles, before shifting serious. The camera’s panned to frame only Silver but I can picture Barkley, staring right at him and refusing the bait. They both knew what he meant.
Silver is a lawyer, so I understand why his legalese will rise to the surface like an accent he’s worked hard to shake, but where he tends to lean on it most is when IPV comes up. When the conversation requires deference to its difficult elements, to what’s troubling or hard to talk about, to what’s unclear or messy or makes you want to flinch away. In other words, to what’s most human. By clinging to the very fine, flimsy bounds of what he considers himself required to say, the disconnect between honest question and canned answer is even further underscored. He mentions the league’s new program for how it “deals” with violent assault and IPV, implies the NBA is working to address impacts preceding the “accusations… even before their/they’re prosecuted” (I honestly don’t know which tense to use, Silver doesn’t clarify whether he means to intercept a person or an accusation).
(Aside: How a person, let alone a nebulous entity that’s shown its unwillingness to respond and confusion in responding to IPV by its athletes, will preempt that violence, only translates to me as suppression and discouraging accusations — which is just business as usual, not a new program)
Training and counselling athletes to recognize where escalation can rapidly happen in high stress situations like arguments with intimate partners, as Silver then touches on, is not nothing, but this already existed within the NBA’s framework. Like the mental health resources NBA athletes technically have available, but differ on a team-to-team basis — as with team-employed psychologists, not all teams have them — or is a league-implemented program, it’s also likely not mandatory. I’m not saying it should or has to be, but resources are only as valuable as they are readily accessible, and accessible without scrutiny, or without the sense that judgement could result if they’re sought out.
To that end it might seem counterintuitive for the NBA to hand out harsher penalties to its players for committing acts of IPV. Why would someone on the verge of an IPV incident, who might recognize added anxiety or stress in themselves that could lead to an escalation, or be curious in seeking wider self- and emotional-awareness, trust resources from their same employer that just suspended someone else for a season for actions these programs were meant to address? What’s harder is this is all hypothetical. Counter to what Silver didn’t just imply, but stated outright there just minutes before the league’s new season tipped off, the NBA hasn’t meted out enormous consequences to allegations, or charged incidents of IPV or assault, in any form. It has barely set the bar for consequences, real or imagined, at all.
To render, or inform consequence to undesired actions, one has to first acknowledge the actions are in fact occurring. The NBA has a hard enough time doing that. What Silver’s been saying since pressure on him has mounted during this cycle of violent assaults harkens back to the same talking points he used in 2014, when NFL player Ray Rice’s violent assault on Janay Palmer in an elevator came like a lightning rod and a rare opportunity for the NBA to adjust its own approach to addressing IPV. To that end, Silver called a policy change “premature”. The league had “brought in their own experts”, the board of governors sat through a presentation on domestic violence (led by Kathy Behrens, who was then executive director and not in her role now as president of social responsibility — which to me feels just like putting the lone woman in the room forward for its own sake, but I digress) because Silver wanted to raise ”the sensitivity of team executives so they can spot issues”, and cited a training program on IPV that NBA athletes would take part in that season (2014-2015) — sound familiar?
To draw a brutal but necessary timeline: Derrick Rose’s accusation of gang rape came on August 26, 2013, when his former girlfriend filed her lawsuit against him. That allegation developed into the 2013-2014 season, abutting Rice’s assault. Silver and the league had plenty of their own awful inspiration for a policy change right then, and myriad more would come. It always comes.
What was so welcome about the way Barkley brought it up is that it was also fallible. You’ll excuse me for weighing a lifetime of distrust in men doing the right thing by women against Barkley’s own history of being outspoken, blunt to a fault, but even when I wondered if the question had been pre-screened (it hadn’t, as The Athletic confirmed with a local TV source onsite who requested to remain unnamed), Barkley’s delivery wasn’t. He didn’t necessarily know how to say the right thing, only that he wanted to, that he should, say something — so he did. His palpable disgust and frustration punctuating every word. There was nothing clipped for live TV, nothing neat. His cadence only coming from years as a practiced pro. What’s stuck with me most is how much can really be “on the line”, or riding on making the statement exactly right as to avoid consequence, when whatever he said was going to establish new ground by virtue of saying it on a season-opening broadcast? Automatically flagging the NBA’s reluctance to outright denial of admitting an IPV problem and simultaneously imbuing it with significance to 2,756,000ish people; people who might have not known, cared or gave it too much thought, suddenly made to pause.
Certainly, Barkley’s job is pretty entrenched, but you also can’t really make a mess of something if you’re the first one to do it.
(Another aside: It would be erasure to leave out the times Malika Andrews has broached subjects of IPV and violence against women live on a broadcast, most recently as she did during the Draft by noting Brandon Miller’s ongoing link to the murder of Jamea Harris at the University of Alabama, and the vitriolic responses she’s gotten for doing so “out of context” when Barkley is being celebrated for doing the same)
The exchange has been replaying in my head since Wednesday night. Tagged along with me to the Raptors home opener, where I talked about it with friends while thinking about being there, in some manifold component of the NBA’s well-oiled engine as it revved up to run again. I thought about it in the context of seeing, lately, more friends and colleagues in this industry write and talk about IPV as part of their “everyday”, folded into the work they’re already doing and not needing some solemn occasion for it.
I thought about it as I took shears to the delicate stamens of the giant lilies that had just furled open in the birthday bouquet my parents had given me, meaning to snip the brick red bars of pollen off. I got through two flowers, with about a dozen stamens collected in a piece of paper towel, before I stopped. What was the point? They were up where the cat couldn’t get them and if the pollen shed it wasn’t going to get on anything but the countertop and a piece of pottery, a marbled periwinkle and cream dish I’d brought back from Mexico City years ago. There, the red pollen might dust over the muted blue, materialize into a pattern more brilliant, messy but live, literally living, passing beyond the moment and searching out more life.
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