Skip Bayless on FS1's Undisputed

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Skip Bayless is not a beloved figure right now. In the wake of his controversial tweet in the aftermath of Bills safety Damar Hamlin’s on-field cardiac arrest on Monday Night Football, Bayless has faced blistering criticism from seemingly everyone across the sports spectrum. The blowback has been so fierce that Bayless quickly sent a follow-up tweet attempting to explain what he meant and issued an apology the following day on his show, though he’s thus far refused to take down the offending tweet, which of course undercuts the sincerity of that apology. Bayless had to issue that apology without his co-host Shannon Sharpe on set, who stayed home Tuesday morning, and then got into an uncomfortable, on-air argument with Sharpe at the beginning of Wednesday’s show, with Sharpe clearly upset at what his co-worker had done and for interrupting him during his opening statement.

Bayless has maintained that there’s been a giant misunderstanding of his tweet, which if you need a refresher went like this: “No doubt the NFL is considering postponing the rest of this game – but how? This late in the season, a game of this magnitude is crucial to the regular-season outcome … which suddenly seems so irrelevant.”

What’s interesting is that he might not actually be wrong. We probably are misinterpreting his tweet, at least a little bit.

To be sure, it is, in no interpretation, a good tweet. The timing was horrific. Bayless fired it off just minutes after Hamlin was taken off the field and while the entire sports world was worried about his health, so on first glance, changing the subject to the status of that football game looked unbelievably insensitive, if not cruel. Bayless had not only broached that subject at the precise moment that no one was in the mood to discuss anything other than Hamlin’s health, he pushed his addendum of his thoughts – that the outcome of the game seemed irrelevant – to the back end of the tweet, which gave the impression that Hamlin’s health was secondary to the football game to him. (It didn’t help that “seems” was an incredibly weak verb choice to describe that game’s irrelevance, instead of him simply saying that the game was irrelevant.) Looked at in a vacuum, the tweet looks callous. However, Bayless had actually sent a tweet 19 minutes earlier that was more compassionate, saying in part, “Just said a prayer for him and his family.” When you couple that with his addendum in the other tweet about how the game’s conclusion wasn’t as important as Hamlin’s health, it becomes easier to accept that Bayless probably was thinking out loud more than he was truly, literally stating that what really mattered was the completion of that football game. No matter how unlikeable Bayless might be, that’s almost certainly not what he intended to say.

That said, it’s precisely because he IS so unlikeable that it’s impossible to feel sorry for Bayless, who has no one to blame for this controversy, or frankly any future misconstrued controversy, but himself. Bayless is, after all, a wholly detestable figure, a troll who has spent his entire televised career playing the role of The Athlete Hater, as someone who degrades and diminishes players for no reason other than getting eyeballs out of it. His entire schtick has been saying and tweeting things about players that are so offensive and so provocative that people talk about him solely on the basis of “I can’t believe he did that, what an asshole.” For two decades, he has been the avatar of the lowest common denominator sports fan, of that guy at the bar who shakes his fists at athletes because he thinks they’re all prima donnas and overpaid and arrogant, and with it has come a fair amount of race-baiting. Bayless has made his career by primarily ripping Black athletes for particulars that always felt extreme to people and then arguing with Black commentators or current or former players about whether or not it was appropriate for him to say such things. He has spent the better part of twenty years acting as a de facto voice of aggrieved white sports fans, as the stand-in for the ordinary joe who’s fine with disrespecting an athlete’s livelihood because they think they can see their hidden intangibles that actually mean they’re bad. (See: Bayless’ never-ending treatment of LeBron James.) And unless he’s the most imbecilic person alive and doesn’t realize who he’s been appealing to, Bayless knows exactly what he’s been doing and has embraced that role happily.

In other words, when people read Bayless’ tweet on Monday, they were reading him in precisely the manner that he had been conditioning them to see him in this entire time. He’s been inviting people’s anger and parlaying it for twenty years, so why wouldn’t someone see his poorly-constructed, poorly-timed tweet, which could easily be seen in the worst light imaginable, as yet another example of him being the world’s biggest hater? People saw the worst in what he wrote because the worst is almost exclusively what he provides. He’s been the boy who cried wolf for decades and now doesn’t want there to be any misunderstanding about him wondering if it’s time to consider the possibility of wolves attacking. In other words, even if Bayless wasn’t really being dismissive of Hamlin, any outrage he received that was misplaced is nonetheless something he earned a long time ago by a factor of ten. He didn’t get the benefit of the doubt on Monday because virtually no one in the history of sports talk has courted it or deserved it less.

As for what this controversy means for Bayless’ career, the answer is almost certainly nothing. Bayless is unlikely to modulate himself in the slightest because as bruising as the reaction to his tweet might have been, getting reactions like that is the only reason he’s relevant at all. No one in human history has ever said, “Wow, you gotta check out this deep and profound thing Skip Bayless said!” Only 165,000 viewers tuned in to watch his apology episode on Tuesday, an extraordinarily small number (an episode of Bitchin Rides on MotorTrend TV got two times more viewers) that only serves to explain why he courts such controversy in the first place. Getting people occasionally irate is the only trick in the book Bayless has, and so long as he still has a timeslot on a TV channel, if there’s any lesson he’s likely to take from this entire situation, it’s how and when he can tweet something like this and get people mad at him all over again.