I don’t think Tiki Barber is being truthful in the latest installment of HBO’s “Real Sports With Bryant Gumbel” about the demise of his TV career, but that’s actually kind of a compliment.
“Sports” correspondent Armen Keteyian has a fascinating interview with the former NFL star-turned-NBC anchor, which may be as much a testament to Barber as it is Keteyian. Barber comes off as a sympathetic figure, despite a reputation tarnished by his leaving his pregnant wife to take up with an NBC intern, among other missteps.
Among the revelations that come forth in the segment is Barber’s admission that he was in way over his head at NBC, where he was installed with much fanfare in 2007 in a prominent on-air role contributing to everything from “Today” to “Sunday Night Football.” He concedes he lacked the “skill set” to function as a journalist and fessed up to feeling ill-equipped to conduct interviews with newsmakers. His contract was not renewed and he exited NBC in 2010.
It’s rare to hear that kind of refreshingly self-effacing honesty, but therein lies the problem: I don’t buy it.
And here’s where the backhanded compliment comes in: It’s difficult to accept the image Barber projects of himself as a bumbling anchor because he displays too much intelligence to convince me he’s too stupid to be a journalist. There’s way too many stupid people gainfully employed in the TV news business to fool anyone into thinking he lacked the “skill set.”
So what really killed his TV career? The more obvious reason is that the tabloid nightmare that became Barber’s life made for such a distraction that whatever natural ability he had in front of the camera no longer mattered. And Keteyian also suggests that people working alongside Barber at NBC didn’t get along with him, which isn’t hard to believe.
Is Barber conscious of those factors or is he putting up a self-effacing front? Again, what makes it so hard to believe he couldn’t hack it as a journalist is the man in this interview is a very thoughtful, telegenic invidual–so much so that it’s hard not to suspect he was presenting Keteyian a version of his persona calculated to accomplish some much-needed image rehabilitation.
Or maybe Barber’s Achilles heel is that he’s incapable of being honest with himself. He can’t see what ruined his TV career for the same reason he professed in the interview to not understanding why the tabloid frenzy ruined his reputation, a denial his agent refers to as a “self-induced coma.”
There’s plenty of athletes who make ill-advised transitions into the broadcast booth despite little experience as an on-air personality, but that wasn’t the case with Barber, who got plenty of experience as a broadcaster before his gig at NBC precisely because he was plotting his career switch long before he made it.
Again, it’s part of what makes Barber endearing. Unlike most athletes, he had broader interests than the sports world even though he excelled there. And he didn’t think he could breeze through his TV gig with a sense of entitlement and understood he needed to work at it in order to master it.
To some degree, Barber’s decision to leave football behind while still in his prime brought to mind Michael Jordan’s foray into golf. It’s as if he’s a man who is trying to understand his own greatness, or prove it to himself, by transplanting himself in a different environment to see if he can excel all over again.
And that’s what may be driving Barber at the age of 36 to see if he can make it in the NFL for the second time. Or something more cynical is at play here; he’s looking to recover some goodwill in the sport that once made him a beloved figure in the first place. Barber could very well eke out another season or two, and from there, who knows: Don’t be surprised if he ends up in the broadcast booth yet again. Just not at NBC.