It’s natural to wonder, while watching debate shows like First Take and Undisputed, if Stephen A. Smith and Skip Bayless actually believe what they’re saying or if it’s all a ruse. Performative banter masquerading as analysis.
Domonique Foxworth, who has been in the trenches with Stephen A, would say it’s a little of both, acknowledging that his job will always be to entertain, even if it means losing an argument to one of his ESPN colleagues.
“The First Take thing is always an interesting one. People forget, when you’re on First Take, we’re on the same team,” says Foxworth, explaining what he feels is the secret to debate television. “And when you do First Take with Stephen A, he understands we’re on the same team. It’s us against the audience, we’re trying to keep you from changing the channel.”
With “viral” content emerging as the new currency in sports media, the debate show genre has never been more prevalent. What that reveals about our societal tastes is probably better left unsaid, but with journalism dying a slow, painful death, opportunists like Bayless and Stephen A are cashing in, laughing all the way to the bank.
“My inclination was, I’m here for blood, I want to win. And while wanting to win is important, to make the show entertaining, cutting people off and yelling and preemptively defeating their points? That **** ain’t entertaining,” said Foxworth on Friday’s episode of The Right Time with Bomani Jones. “I shoot a jab, you shoot a jab.”
That dynamic didn’t come naturally to Foxworth, a born competitor who played seven seasons in the NFL. And while others may decry the irreparable damage Bayless and Stephen A have done to sports discourse, Foxworth appreciates the art in what they do.
“As much as I appreciate Stephen A’s entertainment value, coming up with the take is harder than you think because your credibility lies with every take. And you have to genuinely believe it. Crafting a take that is interesting enough to get people’s attention, so it has to be a little bit out there, but still within something that you actually believe, in a world where everyone is taking all the time, is hard to do,” said Foxworth. “For two hours every day, you have to do that on every topic. And then make faces and say funny words to keep people locked in. That’s why I said it’s not me versus you, it’s us versus them.”
Of course, it’s not for everyone. Jones tried his hand at debate television years earlier but couldn’t hack it, unable to hang with contrarian provocateurs and their boiling hot takes.
“I was on TV with Skip Bayless earlier in my career. And the first couple times I went on with him I was trying to play catch. But that man doesn’t want to play catch. He likes to play pepper,” said Jones. “Being wrong is good for business, to a degree, and your willingness to admit that you’re wrong in this space. But I’m not looking forward to being wrong. You can’t trust me if I do that. You need to know that I believe this.”