Bayless in Mid-Debate
I sometimes wonder what makes Skip Bayless get up in the morning. On air, he seems like an unhappy man. He exhausts his lungs every time he appears on his now co-hosted ESPN program, First Take, formerly First and 10, formerly Cold Pizza. He has histrionic disagreements with his colleagues and the pitch of his voice soars to heights known only to those entering into puberty.
No one seems to like him. He never seems to win.
Skip Bayless is the older brother of a much-lauded and highly successful chef and purveyor of Mexican cuisine. Bayless has written about sports in some fashion since his college days at Vanderbilt but hasn’t competed since his days as a high school basketball sub-star. His own father referred to him as "Skip," the verb we use to delineate the passing over of an object, or the action of throwing a stone across water that will, inevitably, sink. That, in itself, might have been the seed from which all this failure is wrought.
I am generating idle speculation about Bayless’s emotional state in the way that he formulates his arguments about sports. I might refer to clips from the shows Bayless is featured on. I could cite articles Bayless has written. But in forming my debates and assertions about why Skip Bayless isn’t a better commentator or analyst—and why this is a substantive problem to be discussed at all—I will simply follow the lead of the man himself.
Skip Bayless doesn’t want it enough.
He suffers from the pressure of media attention.
He shrinks under the spotlight.
He freezes when he should be on fire. Or, perhaps, he flames out when he should be heating up.
I’m not certain anymore. The Mobius strip of untenable assertions that I make when engaging in this sort of speculation leads always back to the place where I’ve begun: I wonder what keeps this man going.
Will he be proud of his accomplishments in some far off retirement? Does he experience pride at all? I believe he must. Bayless is heavily invested in his own positions and his assertions, doubling down on his arguments as if someone might soon drag him away.
And like coaches who love their fading stars, ESPN has invested in him. The money, the show adjustments, the timeslots, the carousel of analysts who drag themselves onto his show. Bayless is kept around, I assume, because people watch his show and ESPN profits off of those viewers through advertising dollars.
In some ways, this is similar to the phenomenon of Howard Stern or Lady Gaga or Madonna. Shock sells. Even if it is at times offensive or uncomfortable. People watch and listen even when they’re enraged. And that makes money. And it often takes talent.
But ESPN doesn’t have a Howard Stern or a Lady Gaga or a Madonna. ESPN has something closer to a Fred Durst. Oh, to be sure, the kids will love “Nookie” and rap-rock and the platinum sales and the VMA’s for a while. We’ll roll with the distortion pedals and the flippant lyrics and the scratching vinyl. But the minute “Chocolate Starfish and the Hot-Dog Flavored Water” is released, everyone gets out of dodge. We’re starting to see that now. First Take’s ratings are falling. And Bayless can’t seem to say anything without catching heat for it.
I myself might not love Skip Bayless or his inflated style of rhetorical bloat. But in my heart of hearts, I admire what Skip Bayless represents. He was not gifted at athletic competition but he is very good at being passionately loud. He does not have a fondness for watching and analyzing tape but he is willing to take a position and intransigently defend it. If I am good enough at this activity, a nationally syndicated news network might one day pay me hundreds of thousands of dollars each year to ignore facts while purporting to debate ideas. At a time when millions of Americans are out of work and struggling to hold their finances together, it is a phenomenon to watch a man be paid to remain talentless as his full-time job.
For Bayless, sports represent a hypothetical construct or abstraction and the analysis thereof is predicated on the pseudoscience of psychological conjecture. Players don’t lose due to a lack of strategic advantage or having been outmuscled in the arena; they lose because they don’t want to win badly enough. Teams don’t fail due to a lack of coordinated effort or the execution of a series of planned plays; they lose because their nerves got the best of them, they let the spotlights blind them, they let superficialities distract from success.
Bayless can view sports through this particular lens because he never played professional or collegiate sports. He examines sports as a writer, which is to say that sports in general represent a far-off idea that follows a loose narrative.
Authors who were soldiers write about war in a categorically different way than authors who write about war while sitting in the suburbs. It’s the difference between The Things They Carried and Captain Correlli’s Mandolin.
Bayless is liberated—or prevented—from knowing or having to deal with all that goes into athletic success, from the practice floor to the time spent under the Friday night lights to the review of game tape thereafter. And it’s not for lack of access: he’s been involved in sportswriting and commentating for decades.
And perhaps, in our democratized society in which everyone is a critic, the fault does not lie with him alone. He once was a talented and awarded sportswriter. ESPN certainly should take some responsibility for the formulation and distillation of their own product. But Bayless’s on-screen persona is his own: he presents himself as a man who never seems to lack conviction and is, by turns, full of passionate intensity.
We can make a game of analyzing Skip’s commentary style on the various iterations of his shows. The game is a sort of roulette in which there are no winners or losers but a mere measure of consistency: I randomly pull any video segment of Bayless speaking on any subject and, within three minutes, I will have found a clip of him saying something that is offensive, false, exaggerated, exasperating, or all of the above.
The best are moments when, clearly, Bayless has stepped outside the realm of his own knowledge and simply says things that aren’t true. As in the clip in which he refers to the song Empire State of Mind as demonstrable proof for his assertion that Jay-Z is a terrific lyricist. This might be a relevant observation if Hova had written the song’s lyrics, which he didn’t. The song’s lyrics were composed by two women from New York who sent the song to Roc-a-Fella because they thought it was good. Jay-Z appropriated the song, revamped some of its verses, and the song became a hit. Which is to say, even if Jay-Z is the best lyricist in the history of rap, referring to Empire State of Mind as proof of such is erroneous at best and revelatory of intellectual laziness and ignorance at worst.
Love Jimi Hendrix? Isn’t All Along the Watchtower just indelible proof of his songwriting capacities? Right.
There are the times when Bayless makes wonderfully subjective claims that can never be substantiated, such as his idea that Derrick Rose dominates the point guard position better than Magic Johnson ever did. The claim has no premises to support the argument and can never be fact-checked.
There are the broad, sweeping generalizations that are both unverifiable and factually inaccurate, such as his belief that white people will naturally support white athletes more so than black athletes. Well Skip, here’s to the success of Kirk Cousins and all the long years of his career as a starting Redskin.
But most noticeable is the odd duplicity Bayless evinces when discussing popular sports figures. None exhibits this dualism better than his outsized fondness of Tim Tebow and his inability to appreciate LeBron James.
Tim Tebow is a winner. Tim Tebow is a leader. He just succeeds. Sure, there was the Denver defense, staunchly keeping the whole team in games they had no business winning. And yes, Matt Prater was a miracle-worker, booting balls through goalposts as if God Himself were guiding the pigskin. To be fair, the Broncos running backs had renaissance years, effectively returning from the dead. But it was mostly Tim Tebow, who regularly played 58 minutes of lights-out-terrible football nearly every game and managed to throw a decent pass in the final one-hundred and twenty seconds on rare occasions, relying more often than not on the errors of the opponents.
In other words—and many sports analysts were culpable in this during Tebow’s reign in Denver—Bayless willfully ignored the greater narrative of the Broncos’ season (that a strong defense and running game can still generate success in the NFL, even when the quarterback is subpar) and instead focused on a single variable that was, in many ways, not even the most relevant part of the story. It is easy to shout “Tebow! Tebow! Tebow!” but it’s not exactly rocket science.
By contrast, there is also Bayless’s apparent inability to acknowledge the possibility that LeBron James is one of best basketball players alive. It is strange to watch back-to-back clips of Bayless by turns lauding the abilities of a guy who can’t throw a football and then denigrate a guy who can capably play every position in basketball at the highest level.
Where Tebow’s foibles and shortcomings are interpreted as the marks of a martyr, what long-term success James has had is marred entirely by the duration of his career during which he didn’t win a championship. It’s a strange dichotomy. After all, LeBron James is the bearer of one of the best win-loss records of any professional basketball player. That’s not something that comes from playing two-minutes of quality ball per game.
This dissonance is only possible when reference to a core text, video or historical record is deemed unnecessary or simply not worthwhile. In the Bayless style of analysis, the key is to focus entirely on intangibles. Not the intangibles that constitute leadership ability or intellectual heft in a given field. Literal intangibles. Things that cannot be touched because they do not exist.
In not a single video of Skip Bayless loosely discussing any topic that is sports-related does he ever refer to particular plays, game structures, logistical execution or anything related to the skills and maintenance of a sports team or individual athlete. It is rather astonishing. Try it. Just go to YouTube and search for a Skip Bayless clip of any sort. You won’t find a single one in which he discusses an actual occurrence in a sporting event.
It would be like, say, writing an article about Skip Bayless and never once reading one of the man’s articles or transcripts, or watching his commentary on contemporary sports.
Why isn’t Skip Bayless a better sportswriter? Because he doesn’t want it enough? In the Bayless universe, that is the article of both faith and reason that makes the difference.
Or any other unknowable, speculative assertion you can fill in here that doesn’t attend to his apparently deficient tendencies as a broadcaster.
Certainly it has nothing to do with his brand of what one might call "analysis." Certainly it’s not his obtuse style of discussion, his inability to delineate facts, his blindness toward the investiture of professional competition, his inability to understand that winning a sporting event is not simply a matter of wanting to win more than the other player or team.
Now, there is the justifiable question raised about all discussion regarding Bayless, which is, “The guy’s an idiot. Who cares?” And to a great degree, the question is justifiable; the answer rather obvious; a conclusion unnecessary. Skip Bayless, after all, will still have a job tomorrow. Those who are annoyed at his inflamed generalizations will continue to be annoyed. Those who value his witty banter with Stephen A. Smith will, presumably, still value the witty banter tomorrow as they do today.
This apparent ultra-stability—the unchanging relationship of Bayless with his audience and Bayless with his colleagues on the other side of the desk—is the problem. His commentary is sophomoric and his observations rarely rooted in specific citations. He doesn’t illuminate athletes or athletics. He talks about sports in the same way that freshmen English students talk about the first book they read in college: without apparent reference to the thing itself.
I don’t begrudge Skip Bayless because of his apparent inability to construct decent arguments or analyze sports. My problem with the man’s work is that it actually makes watchers dumber, less attuned toward the nuances of athletic competition, less sharp in our own assessments and analysis.
He lowers the threshold of discussion beyond the pale of admissible dialogue by rarely talking about sports. He talks about fame, emotional stress, pressure, the limelight and any number of other ham-fisted pop-psychological whimsies that may or may not actually explain anything about a player’s performance in any sport on any night.
In almost all other fields, this sort of pseudo-intellectualism would be dismissed as the impotent ramblings of a dilettante. It is nearly impossible to envisage music critics or historians, social workers or professors being given the wide berth that Bayless receives to intermittently wander into and out of a nebulous, directionless chat in which he engages almost every day for hours on end.
And still, you might shrug at all of this and yawn, “So what? He’s just a talking head.” And again, you would still be right. But sports in America is not simply some empty pastime that distracts us, and from which we emerge feeling easier, freer and more satisfied with the beauties of the world around us.
At a time when the global economy is struggling to resurrect itself from years of malfeasance and mismanagement, the nation of NFListan is enjoying widespread growth and economic surpluses that outgain most countries in the world. Basketball players are among the most popular people on earth. Baseball has sold more tickets in recent seasons than ever before. All this, at a time when relative income and savings levels and employment numbers are lower than they have been for decades.
Sports aren’t just sports: we are financially and emotionally invested in athletics in a way that humankind never has been before. Largely, this is because sporting life is more accessible now than it ever has been—just like everything else, due to the rise of the Internet—but it is also because sports and the visualization thereof are also better now than they ever have been. Even on public access channels like NBC or FOX, we can watch plays and replays from any angle at any time. Given our access to all of that data, we can make better and more refined judgments about how plays should pan out and how to better develop the sport itself.
As importantly, it is our analysis and examination that helps make sports better and safer. It has become increasingly apparent that for all of our love of sports as leisure activities, the dangers thereof were long ignored or unknown. Whether one is playing lacrosse, football or hockey, it is the ability of long-term viewers that has allowed us to hone our ability to adjust the games so that they’re not so debilitating in the long-run. Does that make the games necessarily more fun? Perhaps not—but at least those who begin playing at a young age can start taking care of themselves sooner and live into old age longer.
In other words, we need quality analytics: it helps make the games better and less dangerous.
Our capacity for constructive analysis symbiotically facilitates the development of our leisure times. We have great works of literature because we have great authors and great critics. We have great journalism because we have great writers and also great editors. We have great art because of the artists and the art historians. Which is to say, we get better at everything because we study and we learn and we evolve. We have generated a system that allows us to self-assess and thereafter improve.
And indeed, we do have a greater appreciation for sports and athletic competition precisely because there are great analysts, color commentators and sportswriters who help us understand not just the technicalities and nuances of the games themselves but also the broader narrative arc into which they fit. Though we can pay for services that allow us to watch sports events without commentary—which makes them go by faster—most viewers aren’t able to appreciate how the movements of one player might effect the outcome of plays elsewhere.
Sports come to represent not simply the outward manifestation of bizarre, esoteric, and ultimately arbitrary rules of competition. Sports represent some metaphor for the human condition—our capacity for greatness, our ability to triumph in the face of adversity, our aptitude for survival in difficult times. And we often come to appreciate sports greatness only in retrospect, only while going back to the tape. This was something that the late Steve Sabol understood almost to a fault, constructing a library of football film that would rival any library on any subject anywhere in the world.
Analytics helps us appreciate everything.
Skip Bayless doesn’t do that. Bayless misdirects our attentions: he exaggerates, he perpetuates falsehoods and stereotypes, he doesn’t seem to watch the very games he comments on. Which is to say, he is bad at his job. That a person like Skip Bayless exists in the public sphere should be a finite aberration: in an age where thoughtful analysis has never been easier, why is someone so poor at analysis being given so much airtime?
I wonder. It is perhaps because Skip Bayless is ESPN’s Tim Tebow. Sure, he might not do what he is ostensibly supposed to for the majority of his professional life. But people are still coming to watch. And in that, the man is a winner.