By DAN GARTLAND
EXECUTIVE SPORTS EDITOR
My roommates tend to leave the television on. Most days, I come back from class and find Skip Bayless and Stephen A. Smith of ESPN2’s “First Take” shouting into my empty living room, at which point I can feel my brain begin to melt, and I lunge for the remote control to turn off the idiotic blather.
In case you’re fortunate enough to never have seen “First Take,” allow me to summarize the premise: Bayless and Smith yell at each other for an hour. Every morning. The topics are generally idiotic: “Should LeBron stop his pregame dunk routine?” “What do you think about the Miami Heat’s ‘Harlem Shake’ video?” All that is pretty harmless, but “First Take” has also found itself in trouble, like when Rob Parker (who is black), sitting in for Smith, called into question Robert Griffin III’s “blackness,” asking whether Griffin was “a brother or a ‘cornball brother.’” Parker was suspended for a month because of those comments, and was eventually let go. Parker later said that the show’s producers knew what he was going to say before he went on air.
Two weeks ago, Seahawks cornerback Richard Sherman appeared on the new half-hour afternoon session of “First Take” (yes, the show is popular enough for ESPN to add another edition later in the day). Bayless repeatedly tried to bait Sherman into trash talking Jets corner Darrelle Revis, which Sherman has done on Twitter throughout the offseason. Sherman was having none of it, and instead turned his sights on Bayless, saying, among other things, “I’m better at life than you.” Most people said Sherman “won” (because when it comes to yelling on TV, there must always be a winner and a loser).
The segment gained a lot of attention — mostly negative (but, let’s face it, ESPN only cares about the first half of that sentence). Later that night, Bill Simmons, wildly popular columnist and current editor-in-chief of ESPN offshoot Grantland.com, weighed in on Twitter, calling it “awful and embarrassing to everyone involved.” He added, “Nobody won. Everyone lost. Including ESPN.”
Simmons has over two million Twitter followers and was recently named the most powerful person in sports media by Sports Illustrated’s Richard Deitsch, so when he criticized “First Take,” it made a pretty big splash. The three tweets Simmons sent on the topic were re-tweeted an average of 1,126 times.
Simmons is ESPN’s biggest star. His popularity as a columnist led ESPN to build an entire website around him and also earned him a spot on ESPN’s “NBA Shootaround” pregame show. He’s powerful enough to effect change at ESPN, so when he was critical of “First Take,” a lot of people were hopeful that it would cause ESPN to seriously consider whether the show was worth all the trouble it causes.
Instead, ESPN decided to suspend Simmons from Twitter for three days, which is sort of stupid when you think about it. You can’t post 140 character messages on the Internet for a couple days. That will teach you!
Still, the incident shows just how protective of “First Take” the network is. It’s a show that averages only about 300,000 viewers, yet receives the most criticism of any show in the ESPN lineup, and ESPN executives spend a disproportionate amount of time defending it — ‘Change the channel’ is their basic response to critics.
Simmons’ comments weren’t anything radical; a lot of people don’t like First Take. They don’t like that Bayless has made a career out of being nothing but a contrarian. They don’t like that its strategy for attracting viewers seems to be to make them angry enough to say, “I can’t wait to see what they say next.” They don’t like how the show often introduces a racial component to stories that have very little to do with race.
Forget for a minute that the show depends on a certain amount of animosity between Bayless (who is white) and Smith (who is black). The Griffin situation, that got Parker in trouble, is a perfect example of manufacturing racial tensions; so is the 16-minute video on the show’s YouTube page titled, “Tim Tebow and Race Discussion on ESPN First Take.” So it should come as no surprise that after the Sherman segment, The Big Lead’s Jason McIntyre said an “ESPN insider” told him that First Take’s producers “love to have black athletes embarrass Skip. They relish that.”
The problem I have with “First Take” is that it doesn’t have to be as bad as it is. Debate style shows (“Pardon The Interruption” and “Around The Horn”) have been the staple of ESPN’s late-afternoon lineup for over 10 years. Ideally, “First Take’s” morning edition would provide a more discussion-centric complement to the highlight-oriented “SportsCenter.”
Bayless and Smith (or maybe just the combination of the two) are what make the show insufferable. Bayless is just a terrible person — the real-life version of an Internet troll. Smith is actually tolerable when he appears on other ESPN programs to discuss the NBA, but being paired with Bayless brings out the worst in him. On Tuesday, Smith and Bayless were absent, replaced by Mike Hill and Ryen Russillo. To be honest, from what I saw, the show that day wasn’t all that bad.