DO THE CREEPS ON SPORTS TV (BAYLESS) KNOW HOW WRETCHED THEY ARE?
Not until I left an ESPN show did I realize how pathetic it all is, with the racial slur dropped by FS1’s geezer/cretin — “little light-skinned Steph” — sinking the daytime debate genre to new lows
What a miserable life one must lead — I mean your life, Skip Bayless — when he drops racial slurs to spike his abysmal TV ratings. In a comment that should have prompted his immediate yanking, by the tongue, from the Fox Sports 1 program “Undisputed,” Bayless disgraced himself once again in an oddly timed and disturbingly aimed rant.
Only hours earlier, Steph Curry was named Finals MVP after leading the Golden State Warriors to their fourth NBA championship since 2015. There is no more beloved athlete, across all demographics, than Curry right now. My dad, 90, raved about him over the phone on Father’s Day. Kids wear his jersey throughout North America and other continents. Grown men and women love him. Cats and dogs, too. He seems to be saving the NBA from itself. He also is showing a sports world swallowed by self-absorbed athletes how to behave, compete and live.
Skip Bayless, the contrived contrarian, isn’t fond of Curry and mentions skin color in saying so.
“I don’t care what Twitter says, I don’t care what anybody says. I just know what I did and did not see from little light-skinned Steph,’’ Bayless actually said Friday morning. “There have been too many times when he got so light-skinned in the Finals, I couldn’t see him anymore, because he turned into a ghost. He just went ‘Poof!’ right before your very eyes.”
He said this in the heat of an argument with sparring partner Shannon Sharpe, who is Black, about whether Curry deserves a ranking among the sport’s all-time top 10 players. Somehow, in a warped line of thinking that suggests he be committed to a straitjacket if not an institution, Bayless equated Curry’s Game 5 slump and other occasional postseason fade-outs to his skin tone.
This is the same creep who once said he felt no sympathy for Dallas Cowboys star Dak Prescott, after his brother’s suicide, because, “He’s the quarterback of America’s team. The sport that he plays is dog-eat-dog. It is no compassion, no quarter given on the football field. If you reveal publicly any little weakness, it can affect your team’s ability to believe in you in the toughest spot.”
Obviously, Bayless is a sick dude. His bosses finally seemed to agree in distancing themselves from his Prescott comments in September 2020, but days later, they rewarded him with a lucrative contract extension. WTF? The lowly ratings of “Undisputed” imply Bayless either has pictures of someone in a compromised position or, more likely, has such an ally in Cowboys owner and NFL power broker Jerry Jones that Fox Corporation CEO Lachlan Murdoch is brainwashed. Surely, Fox has a smarter way of spending $32 million, especially with Tom Brady arriving soon at a $375 million price.
Despite the money pouring into the household, I feel sorry for Bayless’ wife, Ernestine. She’s the one often referenced by her husband whenever he feels slighted in the sports TV business. It’s somewhat understandable, I guess, why Ernestine would be bothered, according to Skip, when Charles Barkley vows to kill him on live TV. Then again, some people might support Barkley after Skip’s latest slip. Can he at least be fired this time?
“If I get a disease and I’m gonna die, how about you get Skip Bayless in here, and I’ll kill him live on national television,” he said on Dan Patrick’s eponymous show, one of many such death wishes.
Recently, Bayless responded. “My wife, Ernestine, has believed for 15 years that Charles Barkley is nothing but a sick individual,” he said. “To her, he is just pure evil, that he is depraved, that he is a scumbag and she believes or fears that one day, Charles will somehow — maybe unwittingly or maybe wittingly — inspire some other nut to end my life. And this haunts her, this hurts her, because she believes that in the end, Charles Barkley would have my blood on his hands.”
So far, Barkley has not been charged with first-degree murder. But Ernestine re-entered the sports media gutter last week when her husband lamented how Stephen A. Smith, his former debate partner and so-called “brother,” appeared on JJ Redick’s podcast and said Bayless once begged him to become a full-timer on “First Take,” then airing on ESPN2. Recalled Smith, paraphrasing Bayless from 2012: “Skip Bayless comes to me in the parking lot of ESPN’s campus in Bristol, Connecticut, and he says … ‘I need you. I’ve done all that I could to take this as far as it can go. I need you, please. Just give me three years. I think we’ll knock it out of the park.’ I thought about it. Those were clearly my best options. They weren’t about to give me my own show or anything like that at the time. I thought about it for a couple days and said I’d do it. One month later, we were No. 1, and we’ve been No. 1 ever since.”
Did Stephen A. save a show that subsequently gained traction and was moved to the ESPN blowtorch? Bayless, saying he was wounded by what he considered revisionist history, fired back. “How can you save and make a show that was already as big a billion-to-one success story as ESPN had ever seen?” he said. “The ratings and revenue were impossibly great when Stephen A. joined me in 2012. With Stephen A. as my partner, ‘First Take’ would never touch the NFL Monday ratings it hit in 2011, pre-Stephen A.”
And then, inevitably, the Ernestine mention happened. “All I know for sure, at this point in time, is that Stephen A. Smith made statements on JJ Redick’s podcasts last week that flat-out blindsided me, that stung me to the core, that ultimately made me angry and made my wife Ernestine even angrier,” said a visibly aggrieved Skip.
Do these people know how ridiculous they look?
Do they realize, in a country of 332 million humans, that “First Take” — now starring Smith and a cast of random arguers — is watched on a good day by .000104 of the American populace? Last Thursday, on the morning of Golden State’s NBA championship clincher, the program drew merely 347,000 viewers, or the attendance of four college stadiums on a football Saturday. Or, the metro-area population of Corpus Christi, Texas. “Undisputed,” on largely ignored FS1, drew only 170,000, or the turnout at a handful of minor-league parks on a summer’s night. Or, the population of Huntsville, Ala. And just wait until mid-July, the dead zone between the NBA Finals and the opening of NFL camps, when ratings on all such yak programs plunge to ghost-town levels. To justify the existence of their absurdly paid hosts — Smith makes a reported $12 million a year; Bayless around $8 million — the networks point to their streaming and social-media followings, which don’t matter much to cable TV advertisers.
Most likely, Bayless was piggybacking Barkley — whose ratings success and TV prominence is, uh, undisputed — for a much-needed attention hit. And he’s surely dropping stories about Smith in the interest of an ESPN reunion, knowing “First Take” needs a full-time sparring partner. Not that Bristol should have much desire for a 70-year-old crank, without ratings, who should consider retiring to a life with Ernestine. Smith, by comparison, is a mere 54, meaning he has at least five or six years of shouting before he risks a heart attack or his hairline completely recedes.
All of which reminds me why I’m sooooooooooooo happy to be away from the sports TV racket. My eight years as a daily panelist on ESPN’s “Around The Horn” — more a spinoff of “Pardon The Interruption” than Stephen A. vs. the World or Bayless vs. Sharpe and crickets — at least were accompanied by larger numbers approaching one million viewers some afternoons (I’m still waiting for my $25 million a year, as our ratings more than doubled Smith’s). No doubt TV changed my world, not always for the better. For every paycheck that gave my kids an even better life, I dealt with phone-camera gotcha artists and trashy websites that exploited me for clickbait. One site was run by a charlatan named Will Leitch, as in leech, who went on to take paychecks from Major League Baseball after ripping some of MLB’s critics (like me), which constitutes sellout fraud. He disliked me because I cracked jokes about the agricultural odor at the University of Illinois, which I dubbed Moo U., a school he evidently attended and stained like cow manure.
It was unnerving one summer when we scaled all 463 stairs to the top of Il Duomo, the domed cathedral in Italy, only to see a fan in an Ohio State cap scream “AROUND THE HORN!!!” across Florence. It was defamatory when a site reported I was in a bar brawl, requiring an ESPN producer to contact a manager — who confirmed I hadn’t been in the bar and that he’d never heard of me — before freeing me to be on the air that day.
Then there was Neil Steinberg, an annoying blowhard who writes a news column in Chicago. He adopted a habit of strolling across a mostly empty newsroom and standing by our studio — the show was taped in the morning off-hours at the Sun-Times — which prompted our on-site producer to plot a scheme to shoo him away. Not everyone at the paper was fond of the program, despite the “Chicago Sun-Times” logo seen by millions who didn’t know the place was still alive, and we mercifully decamped to the ESPN Zone restaurant blocks away. The night we checked out the new digs, a peculiar interloper showed up and whispered details of the studio set-up over her phone to a keenly interested party. Was someone actually spying on “Around The Horn”? Were we a menace to the sports-and-TV ecosystem in Chicago and beyond? I know a few people who think I was.
No, I don’t miss it. I don’t miss fellow panelists complaining that some of us appeared more than others when, in fact, I had no control over the lineup card beyond making myself available most weekdays. I don’t miss the b.s. of Woody Paige, who claimed I contacted ESPN management to protest when he called me “jabroni” — when, in truth, ESPN called me to apologize for Paige after an Italian-American group complained about him. I’m not even sure “jabroni” is an ethnic slur as much as something he lifted from a “Wedding Crashers” scene. You’re getting the idea, I think.
It’s so third grade, the sports TV biz. So petty, so ignorant, so out there.
The money was lovely. Years later, the peace is lovelier.
I realize it even more after reading the grousing of Norman Chad, the veteran “World Series of Poker” personality, who brought his feud with his former friend, “PTI” host Tony Kornheiser, into the public sandbox. What ended the relationship? Seems Kornheiser, according to the Hanging Chad, ended his appearances on the show. “I was a guest host a couple of dozen times, minimum,” Chad told a site called Awful Announcing. “I appeared on it on ‘Five Good Minutes’ 10 or 20 times. Then I was persona non grata. … It was either Kornheiser himself who said, ‘No more Norm,’ or the guy who ran the show (executive producer) Erik Rydholm. It had to be one of the two and it was probably both.”
It gets more painful. “I know how Tony operates,” Chad said. “I was like Tony’s little brother. I loved helping him with his column. I loved being at the (Washington) Post with him. I spent a lot of time with him. I had many dinners at his home. … Tony is capable of stabbing someone in the back and having no blood on his hands. When I saw it happen to other people who I knew well, respected, and were friends with, Tony was operating the same way there so, my goodness, I guess he did the same thing to me.”
The other night, while dining with friends in Santa Monica Canyon, I ran into Jamie Horowitz. He created the Smith-Bayless tandem at ESPN. After stops at NBC’s “Today” and Fox Sports, where he helped poach Bayless, he joined World Wrestling Entertainment as an executive. That company was run by Vince McMahon until he stepped aside last week as chairman and CEO, after the Wall Street Journal reported he paid $3 million in hush money to an ex-employee over an alleged extramarital affair. Hours later, still fulfilling his promotional duties, McMahon stepped into the ring before “Friday Night SmackDown” and regaled an applauding Minneapolis crowd about the WWE motto: “I’m here to remind you of the four words we just saw. Those four words are ‘then, now, forever’ … and the most important word is ‘together.’ Welcome to SmackDown.” McMahon didn’t sound like a man who thinks his daughter, the interim CEO, will fire him.
Horowitz introduced me to his mother. Then he kidded (I think) that he’s allowed to talk to me, finally, because he no longer works for John Skipper. I once tangled with Skipper, then ESPN’s president. I didn’t appreciate the merry, company-handbook-defiant behavior of his fellow Bristol executive — and longtime friend — one night at the Beverly Wilshire hotel restaurant. The exec, who didn’t recognize me or former ESPN football analyst Sean Salisbury, managed to interrupt our chat with a Hollywood producer who wanted us to host a show. He left the network soon thereafter.
Skipper ultimately would depart ESPN in a cocaine scandal. These days, he runs a sports media startup with another pal, podcaster Dan Le Batard. They’ve centered their business on a financial relationship with DraftKings, a betting company whose stock price has dropped from $64 per share to $11. Skipper/Le Batard only seem to be contributing to a 45-percent rise in calls to the National Problem Gambling Helpline Network. Perhaps Papi, Dan’s famous dad from a previous media life, can help save the ship. Just as Stephen A. saved “First Take” — or was he lying?
No, I don’t miss the sports TV racket.
Life is much better without it, Ernestine. You can have your husband back. He serves no purpose in a normal, rational world.
Jay Mariotti, called “without question the most impacting Chicago sportswriter of the past quarter-century,’’ writes general sports columns for Substack while appearing on some of the 1,678,498 podcasts and shows in production today. He is an accomplished columnist, TV panelist and talk/podcast host. Living in Los Angeles, he gravitated by osmosis to film projects.