BEDMINSTER, NJ — Charles Barkley has a question for people wondering why anyone would associate with the Saudi-backed LIV Golf tour: Why aren’t they outraged by all the other American companies doing business with the same controversial wealth management fund, which is overlooked by Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman of Saudi Arabia?
“You can’t pick and choose who you want to be mad at,” Barkley said Thursday, noting some of the companies the fund has invested in. “They should be mad at Berkshire Hathaway, Tesla, Bank of America, Disney. But they’re not. They are just mad at these golfers.”
At least, that is Barkley’s view and the view pushed by many people working with the new breakaway tour that is causing so much upheaval in golf, sports and US-Saudi relations. For some, the tour is a livelier cash cow offering huge guaranteed sums to entice golfers away from the established PGA Tour. For others, it is a cynical attempt by the Saudi prince to use sports as a way to sanitize his government’s poor global record on human rights abuses.
Barkley, never one to hide from controversy, was right in the middle of it all on Thursday, along with the former President and tournament host, Donald J. Trump.
On a steamy day at the Trump National Golf Club Bedminster, which is hosting the third LIV Golf event starting Friday, Barkley sweated through questions about his potential involvement with the tour and then sweated through 18 holes in the pro-am tournament.
For now, Barkley, a former basketball star and widely popular hoops commentator on the TNT sports network, is only a guest of the tournament. He has had informal talks with Greg Norman, the chief executive of the LIV series, about joining as a commentator. But he said no official offer has been made, and he imposed a Friday deadline on the tour to do so.
“When I wake up in the morning, if they haven’t said anything, I’m going to say, ‘Guys, I’ll play in your pro-am whenever you want me to, if I’m available. But I’m going to go back to my job.’ I love my job and I don’t think it’s fair for them to keep holding on.”
The tour has already lured David Feherty, the former NBC golf analyst, to join its livestream. It doesn’t even have a television contract yet. But Barkley, who has earned broad appeal with his rollicking, unedited, comedic approach to basketball analysis but has also been criticized for sexist jokes about women, would be an enormous boon for the fledgling golf tour.
He has three years remaining on his contract with TNT, he said, and it would take an enormous amount of money for him to defect.
“I’m probably going to lose all my sponsors and everything, so they would have to make it worth my while,” he said. “But if they don’t, I’m still going to support these guys.”
A Quick Guide to the LIV Golf Series
A new series. The launch of the new Saudi-financed LIV Golf series has resurfaced long-standing questions about athletes’ moral obligations and their desire to compete and earn money. Here’s what to know:
The reason he would lose sponsors is that Barkley, who adores golf, could endure a backlash if he formally joins the LIV tour in some capacity. He is one of many people facing criticism for joining, contemplating joining or even just condoning the LIV tour, a team-golf concept bankrolled by Prince Mohammed’s fund.
The prince is a sinister figure to many people around the world, especially after American intelligence officials determined that he had approved the killing of Jamal Khashoggi, a Washington Post journalist who was a critic of the Saudi government.
Further, families of some of the victims of the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks believe that the Saudi government supported the terrorists before they acted. They planned to protest at the tournament on Friday. Barkley did not dismiss the pain and betrayal they felt, but he questioned why all of it was focused on the golf tour.
When other companies that do business with the Saudis give their money back to the fund, he said, then it is fair to criticize only the gofers.
“I can sympathize with the 9/11 families,” Barkley said. “They have a right to voice their opinions.”
Barkley also said it is naive to think that Saudi Arabia is the only bad actor as a nation and cited the United States for having a blemished record on human rights at times.
Barkley said every country was guilty of doing “terrible” things.
“It’s not like America has got a great civil rights record, OK? If you want to be selectively outraged. I love America. It’s the greatest country in the world. But don’t act like we haven’t done our share and still doing our share. Let’s get that out of the way.”
When he was done answering questions, Barkley joined a foursome that also included pro golfers Sergio Garcia, Louis Oosthuizen and Geoffrey Zakarian, a celebrity chef. Barkley being Barkley, there were plenty of laughs.
“Charles is such a gracious, good-natured guy, and he doesn’t take anything too seriously,” Zakarian said. “And he’s a lot of fun to play with.”
On one hole, Barkley warned two people on an approaching golf cart to be alert to Zakarian’s impending shot. When it was Barkley’s turn to shoot, he loudly noted that the cart was backing up to avoid a potential errant shot by him but did not move for Zakarian. His group erupted in laughter.
“It’s OK,” Barkley told the driver. “I’m not sensitive.”
He also discussed basketball, noting in his typically irreverent way that Kevin Durant would stay with the Brooklyn Nets and make a formidable lineup alongside Kyrie Irving and Ben Simmons.
“They might have the best team in the world right now,” he said. “Kyrie is going to have something to prove because he knows if he comes out there and is a jackass all year, he’s not going to get no big contract next year.”
As with the rebel golf tour, much of sports is about the money.