On this night, the games have already started. He has South Carolina’s season opener on the big screen but will soon switch to the New England Patriots’ preseason finale — a final audition for quarterback Tim Tebow, one of Bayless’s favorite topics — and fire up the Vanderbilt game on his laptop, always watching two games simultaneously.
“Ryan Mallett is terrible,” he says at one point. “That was a terrible throw. Tim Tebow is going to be the backup quarterback for the New England Patriots before all of this is over.”
Bayless just may be the most polarizing figure in sports today. The co-host of ESPN’s “First Take,” Bayless epitomizes the superheated, highly lucrative world of sports-talk television. It is a nascent arena that rewards shock and awe more than considered judgment, and Bayless is perfectly suited for it.
He’s insistent on everything, no matter how contrarian or seemingly outlandish: Tebow is a winner (“the next Brett Favre”), LeBron James is a choker (“He’s Pippen more than he’s Jordan”) and everything is open to interpretation (Example: “I’m totally against taking America-born white players in the first round of the draft.”).
He’s helped make “First Take” ESPN2’s top-rated program, which last year averaged 350,000 viewers each weekday. Spurred by the show’s popularity, ESPN and other sports networks have made on-air debate a programming staple.
Bayless has an argument holstered for any sports topic, all rooted in carefully crafted Bayless-ian logic that has inspired vitriol from locker rooms, critics and so many sports fans. Last spring basketball Hall of Famer Charles Barkley said, “If I could get Skip Bayless in a room, you’d need DNA to find out who it was.” Seattle Seahawks cornerback Richard Sherman, during an appearance on “First Take,” called him an “ignorant, pompous, egotistical cretin.”
Responding to Bayless is easy. Understanding him isn’t – his rough childhood, regimented lifestyle, fixed principles and unwavering sense of confidence that underlies it all. He’s created a reality in which he’s always right, and his narrative is always gospel.
Bayless is stoic as he watches football and waits for Tebow to come in off the bench. He occasionally checks e-mail, but on this night he shuns Twitter. He has more than 1.1 million followers but mostly avoids reading the feedback there. On Twitter, the nice ones ask him to kill himself; the nasty ones say they’ll help him do it.