‘Up From Leeds’ and ‘Charissa Thompson on her career path, women working in sports media’ Analysis

Charles Barkley and Charissa Thompson are both sport broadcasters. They’re both very popular among viewers. They’re both also misunderstood.

Barkley is an African-American man born and raised in Leeds, Alabama – the Deep South – at the peak of the Civil Rights Movement. With that background alone, you think you might have him figured out.

Thompson is a blonde West Coast girl from Seattle who made her name in Los Angeles. At least on the surface, she sounds a lot like someone entering a particular entertainment industry.

Barkley beat a lot of odds – his race in an area where it did make a difference for a lot of people, as well as his lack of height, weight issues and general laziness – to become one of the greatest players in NBA history and later one of the most recognizable faces in sports television.

Thompson took the high road to reach her success. She started at a community college, graduated with a degree (“law and society”) that doesn’t really pertain to her current occupation and then systematically worked her way up the ladder in sports television to the point where she became a prominent name at ESPN and now Fox Sports 1.

But is Charles Barkley really a black-hating sellout as many, especially those in the black community, believe? Is Charissa Thompson just another pretty blonde face who shouldn’t be taken seriously when it comes to sports?

Both Jesse Washington and Richard Deitsch did an excellent job to discard those preconceived notions – even for me somewhat – in their pieces for ESPN and Sports Illustrated, respectively, by going straight to the source themselves.

I have never disliked Barkley or Thompson. I was familiar with both before reading about them in these pieces – Barkley as a longtime personality (literally) and Thompson as a fast-rising up-and-comer – and thought they were entertaining enough, but Barkley, I thought, was too foolish to take seriously on most topics and, at least part of me, probably stereotyped Thompson as just a ditzy blonde.

So when I read “Up From Leeds” and “Charissa Thompson on her career path, women working in sports,” I developed a genuine newfound respect for both subjects.

Washington’s story was a literary masterpiece, digging deep to make sense of the polarizing figure humorously known as “Sir Charles” or the “Mound Round of Rebound” from where it all started – Leeds. But it wasn’t so much a profile of Barkley as it was, as Washington put it, “the people, the place and the privilege” that morphed Barkley into the man he is today.

I particularly enjoyed how Washington didn’t hold anything back in the story – just as Barkley doesn’t hold back anything, either. He freely dropped profanity said by Barkley because that’s how Barkley talks on a regular basis, so why hide it? He took the perspective of black people affiliated with Barkley who openly disagree with some of the things he said, so that the controversy surrounding Barkley could be fully understood and to avoid subtly taking his side.

At the same time, Washington also found black folks who agree with some of Barkley’s criticisms of the black community and highlighted the little-publicized millions he’s given toward helping black causes.

Deitsch’s work was mainly just a Q&A, but it wasn’t just a generic five pre-planned questions Q&A. He let Thompson say her piece and added follow-up questions to something she said rather than reign supreme over the interview to create his own desired portrayal of her.

Thompson, despite the way some people view her based off her looks, wants to be respected as a reporter and not just as someone who wants to be famous as is the case with many aspiring journalists. Because of that, she was, at one time, self-conscious of her looks, dying her hair black and throwing on a pair of glasses in hopes of garnering more respect at her craft. She was refreshingly honest about a number of topics, and I think at least some credit has to be given to Deitsch for that in how he mediated the conversation.

And so the biggest takeaway I found across both pieces was a theme of sincerity. Washington and Deitsch were essentially critiquing Barkley and Thompson as people, but there were ulterior motives. While they cut the bullshit and didn’t openly praise them for everything they’ve ever done, they weren’t set out to be malicious, either. At least from my perspective, I truly believe they wanted to discover the real Charles Barkley and the real Charissa Thompson, and they accomplished each well.



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