On Tuesday at Le Parker Meridien Hotel in New York, CBS and Turner had a little gathering to trumpet their new union. The top basketball talent from both companies attended: Marv Albert, Greg Anthony, Greg Gumbel, Gus Johnson, Steve Kerr, Reggie Miller, Kenny Smith, Bill Raftery and, among a slew of others, Charles Barkley.
Barkley was sitting at my table while Johnson and Nantz did what felt like a choreographed two-man standup routine designed to push the idea that the two huge corporations - which paid $10.8 billion for the rights to broadcast the tournament - are really just quirky families that are going to get along swell and make great TV babies together.
"I believe we're on truTV right now," Johnson said, and the audience laughed and applauded. "I could be wrong. We have another week to iron that out."
The better joke came when Barkley immediately leaned in to get the attention of the handful of people around him. Then he swept his hand across the room - an assembly of maybe 100 people at the most.
"And this," Barkley said with a snicker, "is about how many people in the world know what truTV is."
The starched TV suits who decided to fold the TNT NBA analysts into the expanded NCAA coverage probably thought they were getting the gregarious, entertaining, hilarious Barkley. And they are. But they're also getting the irreverent and irrepressible Barkley. By the time the tournament is over, the NCAA might not be so thrilled about that.
Barkley - who's never been a college analyst before now - said his criticism of the players will be atypically muted because "they're just kids," but he didn't make any promises about his television bosses or the NCAA. In fact, he spent most of his time swinging verbal elbows in their direction.
"We just gave these damn people [$10.8 billion]," Barkley said. "That is a lot of money, and we have no idea where it's going. We know it's not going to the kids. At some point, we're going to have to talk about graduating these kids. We can't go three weeks and everyone gets paid and we got a bunch of dummies running around out there."
Barkley talked a lot about the dummies. It was a preview of the things he plans to say on-air during the tournament. In exchange for all the money the TV networks and universities are making from the NCAA tournament - a cozy arrangement that Barkley called "a cash grab" - Barkley said it's only right that the graduation rates are addressed.
"They've got to make some of these kids go to school," Barkley said. "You can't just give them basket-weaving degrees. You can't just put them in classes to keep them eligible. They need to be in real classes. They all think they're going to play in the NBA, but 99.9 percent of them are going out into the real world.
"Not to make it racial or racist, but athletics has a negative effect on the black community. These kids aren't thinking about getting an education. They only think they can play sports. They don't think about becoming doctors, lawyers, firefighters, policemen. At the end of this season, only 50 of these kids are going to make it to the NBA, and, come on, that's being generous. The rest of them, they get put in the real world and we expect them to be fathers and members of the community without an education. And I'm on the NBA's [behind], too. We need to keep these kids in school longer. I want two years."
That's not all he wants. There's a lot of money being made off of college sports (this just in). The athletes - especially those who prematurely jump to the NBA, Barkley said - know it. They want their cut.
"The problem with paying the kids is who do you pay?" Barkley said. "Do you pay the football team? The men's basketball team but not the women's team? Do you pay the lacrosse team? Who do you pay?"
He has a better idea. The NCAA will no doubt be thrilled.
"Players should be able to borrow money from agents," Barkley said. "There's no competitive advantage from agents paying players. I'm not talking about players borrowing a million or even $100,000. But instead of leaving early, they might stay."
This is the part I really hope he talks about on TV while the NCAA logo hovers on the screen somewhere - not because I agree with it, but because it will almost certainly cause university presidents across the land to stroke out and bleed from the ears.
Contact columnist John Gonzalez at 215-854-2813 or firstname.lastname@example.org
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