Tiki, Torched

MSNBC's TIki Barber fumbles his Olympic commentary

Although the NFL season is still a month off, desperate sports fans can get their Tiki Barber fix during the Olympics. The former New York Giant running back has moved on to broadcasting, of course, and when he’s not creating tabloid headlines by slamming his former coach and teammates (who are doing just fine without him), Tiki is proving his expertise about things other than sports by…commenting on the Olympics? A true Renaissance Man, that Tiki.

While fellow Football Night In America commentator Cris Collinsworth has a featured primetime role on the NBC mothership’s coverage, Barber is relegated to MSNBC. He is co-hosts the daily Olympic Update, airing at 5PM EST. There is a chirpy female host back in New York, and another alongside Barber in the Chinese capital. The show engages in the all important Phelps worship, summarizes other highlights of the day, soft-pedals the weather in smoggy Beijing, sends a goofy correspondent (not Tiki) out to “compete in” (read: goof on) ping pong and epee and other “sports.” Generally, it looks to replicate a morning show vibe during the cocktail hour.

There’s nothing inherently wrong with that, and Barber, who has forfeited much of his hardcore football cred (partially because his team won the Super Bowl without him), isn’t unsuited to the format. He has the fake smile and forced enthusiasm of a TV vet, or a Today host, which is what he is now (at least for an hour a day). But even Katie Couric is faring better as CBS Evening News anchor than Tiki is in Beijing.

Olympic Update is on for two hours a day, but as far as Barber is concerned, it’s Amateur Hour. During a segment discussing the USA hoops squad (assessing whether they will do better than in 2004, something of a ridiculous topic after a single game), he referred to the team’s coach, Mike Krzyzewski, Duke’s fabled Coach K and the winner of three NCAA titles, as “Mike Rezevski.” Barber also opined that the team was playing better this time because it had spent much more time together this summer, which isn’t the case—just under three weeks pre-Olympics, this year and four years ago.

In another, more cringe-inducing episode, MSNBC aired footage of hundreds of Chinese volunteers gathered at the troubled sailing venue, cleaning up algae with their hands. It’s an embarrassing situation, one that could get much worse, and certainly nothing to joke about—but somehow, the MSNBC producers thought it was funny to spotlight in an “ain’t these foreigners wacky?” kind of way. Tiki compounded the inappropriate situation with a jocular “Can I have that job?” Which is the sort of dimwitted crack your local affiliate anchor might make, after which you would vow never to watch him again.

One more—in discussing the famously brutal water polo match in 1956 between the Soviets and recently invaded Hungary, Sir Tiki called the winner that day “Hungaria.” Keep in mind, it’s only the fifth day of the Games. Barber isn’t likely to challenge Emmitt Smith in the malaprop department, but he’s becoming appointment television, and not for the right reasons.

OK, everybody makes mistakes. But not everybody was so self-righteous about his abilities as a communicator when it came to defending his reason for leaving the NFL. And precious few have been handed such prestigious announcing slots with so little experience. Barber has his dream gig, apparently, but this viewer, for one, would prefer he don shoulder pads and helmet again.

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Robert Weintraub is the author of The House That Ruth Built. He is a frequent contributor to The New York Times and Slate, and a television writer/producer based in Atlanta.