The Skip Bayless Effect or: How I Learned to Stop Drooling and Criticize ESPN
I’m old enough to remember when ESPN was actually a sports news network. I liked to watch Sportscenter every day when I was 12 years old, absorbing statistics and player transactions like my teachers in middle school were going to test me on how to spell Coach K’s name (that’s K-r-z-y-z-e-w-s-k-i for anyone curious). Sportscasters such as Stuart Scott, Kenny Mayne, and Dan Patrick anchored Sportscenter with enough personality to complement the program, but not too much presence to overshadow the actual sports highlights. The network’s model was simple: show sporting events, produce nightly highlights of sporting events, and occasionally provide analysis with specific programming.
Ten years later, ESPN has morphed into an annoying variant of its former self. I still watch the network as much I did a decade ago, but I do so with an extremely critical eye. Since debuting in 1979, ESPN has built a de facto monopoly in sports television, so there is no other watchable competition, and in the past few years, their lineup of daily programming suggests that the network values outrageous opinions over high-quality sports journalism.
Perhaps the worst example of ESPN’s reliance on shock value content is First Take, a two-hour sports talk debate show hosted by Jay Crawford and starring “reporters” Skip Bayless and Stephen A. Smith. Starring is the appropriate word for Bayless and Stephen A., because both journalists treat the show like it is a springboard for celebrity status. A typical segment on the show goes as follows: Crawford introduces a debate topic (almost always relating to basketball or football), Bayless makes a contrarian argument for exaggerated effect, and Stephen A. blusters, raising his voice and shaking his head, until the debate turns into a chaotic shouting match. And they repeat this formula for two hours…
If Bayless and Stephen A. agree on a topic (this rarely happens), then one of them will change the subject, so they can disagree over semantics. For example, during the May 30th broadcast, both said they believed the San Antonio Spurs had a chance to finish the NBA Finals with an undefeated playoff record, but by the end of the segment, Bayless and Stephen A. wound up disputing the physical and mental toughness of Lebron James.
My gripes with Stephen A. Smith are marginal compared to how I feel about Skip Bayless. Stephen A. has a grating television persona, and he probably should restrain some of the on-screen histrionics, but he is capable of making smart, logical arguments. His biggest problem is that he repeatedly speaks of his friendships with the famous athletes he discusses on the show, which hints at a conflict of interest even if he would never admit to it. However, he also appears on Sportscenter as an NBA analyst and still writes for ESPN.com. He may be an irritating journalist to some, but he is still a journalist.
Skip Bayless, on the other hand, stopped being a journalist in 2007. Bayless used to be an award-winning sports columnist for the Los Angeles Times, The Dallas Morning News, and the Chicago Tribune before he stopped writing to focus solely on First Take. The results have been great for ratings but terrible for anyone who is looking for an intelligent sports debate.
The initial appeal of Bayless is: Hey, look, this guy has no idea what he’s talking about and he gets to be on television every day! But that type of cheap grasp for attention gets old very, very quickly. Bayless is not dumb—he went to Vanderbilt University and was a lead sports columnist in Dallas at age 25—but maybe his obvious intellect makes his shock journalism all the more pitiful. He is so clearly a fraud, a media whore, a man who will say anything to incite a reaction. Bayless is just another Kim Kardashian, someone without any true value, exploiting a niche for as long as possible by saying dumb things in front of a television camera.
After watching the show for a few years, two things become maddeningly clear. 1) Skip Bayless loves to praise Tim Tebow. 2) Skip Bayless will find a way to criticize Lebron James. I focus on these talking points, because Lebron and Tebow are two of the most controversial athletes in America. The ESPN producers probably tell Bayless to mention Lebron and Tebow as much as possible in another crass attempt to improve ratings. It’s fine to discuss lightning rod topics—sports television is a business after all—but straining them in as non-sequiturs is just shameless. Like on May 30th, when Stephen A. and former NFL head coach Eric Mangini were discussing Cam Newton’s offseason maturation, and Bayless fixated on Tebow even though he had nothing to do with the topic. In fact, the Tebow obsession got so bad that on May 23rd, First Take had a “Tebow Free Edition” during which Bayless was banned from saying the quarterback’s name for the whole show.
Ultimately, Bayless gets most of his publicity by bashing Lebron; the same Lebron who just won his third NBA MVP award at age 27, is indisputably the best individual basketball player of his generation, and will likely have the greatest statistical professional career of all time, barring serious injury, when he chooses to retire. If there is any legitimate athletic criticism against Lebron, it is that he hasn’t won a championship yet (yet is the operative word), but Bayless exploits this point way out of proportion. In arguably his worst piece of sports “journalism,” Bayless left Lebron out of his rankings of the top 5 NBA players a year ago. And he has gotten away with it so far, because Lebron spent the first eight seasons of his pro career creating an egomaniacal media persona. But as a good friend told me the other day, “Skip Bayless actually makes me want to root for Lebron.”
Herein lies the blatant contradiction with Bayless. He crucifies Lebron for not having a “clutch gene” and applauds Tebow for performing well under pressure. Yet, Lebron is currently going to his third NBA Finals, and has been the best player (statistically and intangibly) on every team he has ever played for. Meanwhile, Tebow is currently the backup quarterback for the New York Jets, has a career QB rating of 75.1, is regarded by a majority of football analysts as inadequately skilled at his position, and has one clutch playoff win that came in the first round. And in a sports world where statistics can be manipulated to fit almost any argument, Bayless chooses the two most contrarian opinions that cannot be justified and force-feeds them down the throats of his viewers.
The Bayless contradiction takes me to my final point: athletes are celebrities, and sports journalists are not. That’s the way our cultural machinery should function. Typical sports journalists are parasites; they make careers on the coattails of athletes. The good ones do their business with class and rationale. The bad ones turn into fame seekers. What Skip Bayless and the producers at ESPN are doing threatens to turn sports journalism into a complete joke. Pay attention to the way Bayless preens at the camera when he listens to Stephen A. Watch as he tilts his head or raises his eyebrows in a rehearsed series of gestures that is meant to focus all of the attention on him, even when he is not speaking. Or take notice of how his Twitter account has more followers than six-time NBA All-Star Amar’e Stoudemire. And after you have pieced together all of the evidence, change the channel.
ESPN is no longer the engaging sports network I watched a decade ago. The midday programming schedule features a lineup of shows that go over repetitive topics each hour. Numbers Never Lie, Dan LeBatard is Highly Questionable, Sportsnation, Around the Horn, Pardon the Interruption (the only standout show in the list, also the first to premiere back in 2001)—all of these shows exist in a tiresome bubble of sports talk debate. First Take, the network’s worst offender, is at the nucleus.
If First Take really cared about an honest sports debate, then it would discuss the negative impact it is having on sports journalism. But that will never happen, because to do so would push ESPN into exposing its own brand of exploitative nonsense.
Wouldn’t that be blasphemous?
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