Skip Bayless is a moron.
So is Stephen A. Smith, his former partner on ESPN talk show First Take. In fact, people who go on television and yell about sports just to produce a reaction are what’s wrong with most sports talk shows. It’s hard to tell if they even believe what they say.
Smith’s employment came into question last week when ESPN decided to lay off about 100 people because of budget cuts, firing well-respected journalists like Marc Stein, Jayson Stark, Chad Ford, Ed Werder and Adam Caplan.
And look, I get it. Smith was never in danger of losing his job at ESPN because he generates ratings, but it’s saddening that this is ESPN’s mindset. Favoring loudmouths over others, who have, in some cases, worked for over a decade at ESPN doing great journalism, is tough to swallow.
There’s no denying the credentials of both Smith and Bayless. They each have decades of journalism experience and worked up to being some of the highest paid sports TV personalities. So when Smith responded to criticism by saying he earned his job, he was right.
But he still sold out. I don’t think he truly believes the hot takes he spews anymore.
Smith makes $3.5 million per year to be on First Take, which I’ll admit, is one of ESPN’s most popular shows despite the polarizing opinions and lots of yelling. Smith and Bayless were a brutal team, and when Bayless left ESPN for Fox Sports last June despite a reported $4 million-per-year offer from ESPN, First Take didn’t get any better. It was still all about yelling.
In some ways, these people aren’t even the worst in sports media. Former players who get hired for analyst jobs with no media experience often make for comically bad TV. It’s not the only outlet, but NFL Network is the guiltiest of this. It hires guys like Michael Irvin, Warren Sapp and Deion Sanders because they were Hall of Fame players in the NFL, but they don’t provide much in terms of journalistic ability.
I’ll never forget an interview Sanders did with Oakland Raiders player Khalil Mack last year. Instead of asking something thought-provoking, his individual “questions” were reading Mack’s stat line, stating the team’s record and declaring the Raiders have a loyal fan base. His final question?
“You guys can really, I mean, really do something special this year.”
That, sir, is not a question.
But watching a former NFL great talk with a current NFL great? That’s what NFL Network values. And that’s the problem.
For casual fans, this probably doesn’t matter. Maybe they enjoy the “friend-like” approach these analysts take to interviewing players. But I want to see real reporting and comprehensible discussion, and it’s getting harder and harder to find it on TV.
This applies to the NFL gameday crew for Fox: Terry Bradshaw, Michael Strahan, Jimmy Johnson and Howie Long. It seems like it only takes 10 seconds for them all to burst out laughing about something that wasn’t even funny.
Before the 1978 Super Bowl, Bradshaw was called “so dumb, he couldn’t spell ‘cat’ if you spotted him a C and an A.” Pittsburgh Steelers coach Mike Tomlin made reference to this in December 2016 when Bradshaw called Tomlin “a great cheerleader guy” but not a good coach.
Yet, Bradshaw is the type of guy who gets hired to talk about the NFL on TV.
Alright, let’s go back to Bayless and Smith for a minute. When Dallas Mavericks owner Mark Cuban famously ethered them on First Take, he pointed out how their baseless generalizations about sports aren’t based on fact and instead are focused on riling people up.
He criticized other sports media members who do similar things, so it wasn’t all focused on First Take. But the point was still there.
There needs to be a change in TV sports media, or it’s all going to turn into a competition for viral shouting matches. Put the real analysts on TV, the guys who are full-time reporters with extensive journalism experience.
Guys like Albert Breer, Adam Schefter, Ian Rapoport. And it can still be former players, coaches or executives too, like Kurt Warner, Bill Polian and Louis Riddick.
The bottom line is this: Networks are favoring screaming matches or what they think is “authentic insight” from former players over quality analysis. If that is what you prefer, then fine. But don’t be upset when TV sports media becomes devoid of quality journalism soon.
And if you want someone to argue about it with, I heard there are a couple of ESPN guys who make a living doing that.
Austin Vitelli is a managing editor for The Brown and White. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.