In more than three decades as an international celebrity, Charles Barkley has never appeared all that worried that making controversial statements would cost him an endorsement deal or a broadcasting gig.

The commentator and former National Basketball Association player once said the city of San Antonio was full of “some big ol’ women” and “a gold mine for Weight Watchers.” He has admitted to having a gambling problem and said he had no regrets about taking “some cash from agents.” He has defended Adrian Peterson after he spanked his child and NBA players’ use of the n-word. It is, perhaps, no surprise that he famously told his fans: “I am not a role model.”

So his advice to athletes torn between speaking out on society’s most incendiary subjects or remaining tight-lipped for a job’s sake was simple: Be like me.

This weekend, Barkley was hosting “Saturday Night Live” for the fourth time, and he used the bulk of his opening monologue to address Fox News host Laura Ingraham’s criticism of NBA player LeBron James and other jabs at athletes who have been vocal about political issues.

“A lot of professional athletes are worried about [how] speaking out might hurt their careers,” Barkley said in his Alabama drawl. “Well, here’s something that contradicts all of that: me.

“I’ve been saying whatever the hell I want for 30 years, and I’m doing great. I’m hosting SNL for the fourth time for no reason other than [SNL creator and producer] Lorne Michaels just wanted someone to talk to about ‘Black Panther.’ ”

The James-Ingraham controversy — hashtagged #ShutUpAndDribble on social media — has been brewing since just before the NBA All-Star Game on Feb. 18.

That week, ESPN broadcast a video of anchor Cari Champion driving an SUV around with two of the NBA’s biggest stars: James and Golden State Warriors forward Kevin Durant.

During the ride, she asked the players to reflect on a range of issues. At one point, she asked them to describe “the climate for an athlete with a platform” who wants to “talk about what’s happening in our world.”

“The climate is hot,” James replied. He said the current president — filling the “No. 1 job in America” — is “someone who doesn’t understand the people and really don’t give a (expletive) about the people.”

A little later, Ingraham — an avid supporter of President Trump — addressed the recording on her show. Her message was clear: Athletes should stay out of political conversations.

“Must they run their mouth like that?” Ingraham said. “Look, there might be a cautionary lesson in LeBron for kids. This is what happens when you attempt to leave high school a year early to join the NBA.”

She warned her viewers that “it’s always unwise to seek political advice from someone who gets paid $100 million to bounce a ball.

“Keep the political commentary to yourself, or as someone once said, ‘Shut up and dribble.’ ”

After she was widely trolled as racist, Ingraham defended herself in a statement, saying she had used that phrasing before with other non-politicians who had inappropriately waded into politics. James said Ingraham’s statement “lets me know that everything I’ve been saying is correct.”

James and Ingraham are, of course, just two voices in a debate about athletes and political opinions that has raged for decades.


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In 1967, Muhammad Ali was called unpatriotic after he questioned why he should “put on a uniform and go 10,000 miles from home and drop bombs and bullets on brown people in Vietnam while so-called Negro people in Louisville are treated like dogs and denied simple human rights?”

And last week, the Golden State Warriors took a group of children from Seat Pleasant Activity Center to the National Museum of African American History and Culture, instead of taking a post-championship trip to the White House because of a feud with Trump.

In between, many, many black athletes have knelt during the national anthem or used their massive social media followings to address racial injustice and  other social issues.

There are, of course, risks. As Washington Post columnist Kevin B. Blackistone wrote on March 23, “The NFL has effectively blackballed Colin Kaepernick,” the former San Francisco 49ers who started the kneeling protest in 2016 and hasn’t worked as an National Football League quarterback since that season. He has filed a grievance against the NFL and its owners, accusing them of collusion.

Kaepernick’s ordeal serves as a sort of cautionary tale to professional athletes: Speaking up matters, but it has consequences.

But on SNL, Barkley offered himself up as a counterpoint.

“We can do a lot more than dribble,” he said. “I’m a broadcaster. I wrote a book. I even got my own wine. That’s true. It’s called CB Vineyards, it’s the only chardonnay that pairs great with a sausage biscuit.

“So, LeBron, keep on dribbling and don’t ever shut up. And maybe one day you can host SNL for a fourth time just like me.”

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