Skip Bayless on Undisputed Photo credit: FS1

The deterioration of sports journalism is equal parts heartbreaking and inescapable, a product of both moral decay and changing societal sensibilities with audiences prioritizing spectacle over substance. The discourse has never been less sophisticated, with “entertainment,” usually in the form of red-faced gasbags screaming themselves hoarse on daytime television, substituting for measured analysis. And Skip Bayless is at the heart of it.

It’s an epidemic running roughshod through ESPN and Fox Sports, permeating our sports culture in ways no one could have anticipated. And while Bayless isn’t solely to blame for this phenomenon—to an extent, we’re all complicit in normalizing the debate show format, in all its testosterone-soaked bluster—he’s certainly a prime culprit, a central force in the corrosion of sports dialogue.

It speaks volumes about where we’ve arrived, as consumers in an increasingly saturated sports content space, that Bayless’ confrontational stylings, embodying all the familiar symptoms of toxic masculinity, have resonated with so many, elevating him to a king-like pedestal as one of the industry’s foremost influencers.

Some might recognize the “genius” in Bayless’ wrestling-heel persona, bravely sacrificing his journalistic credibility in the name of entertainment. Of course, that blissfully naïve interpretation is what allows Bayless to con us with such ease, poking and prodding his way to the height of his profession.

They say it’s lonely at the top and Bayless can certainly attest to that, driving away the closest thing he had to an industry ally in Shannon Sharpe, his soon-to-be former cohost on Undisputed. Sharpe, in many respects, was the perfect foil for Bayless, a similarly brash debater with no shortage of confidence and poise (speaking to his fearlessness, Sharpe was ready to take on the entire Memphis Grizzlies in a sideline spat that quickly escalated from harmless banter to outright hostility).

But Bayless, threatened by Sharpe’s rising star, did all he could to sabotage their relationship, getting bluntly personal while provoking the Hall-of-Famer into heated arguments with his aggressive tactics and condescending tone. Tired of taking the bait, Sharpe wisely chose to move on, leaving an almost impossible void, because who in their right mind would willingly subject themselves to that cruelty, entering into an abusive relationship with an ego-driven tyrant who plays by his own rules?

Per Front Office Sports, Fox has granted Bayless full autonomy over Undisputed, allowing him “final say” on who the network ultimately chooses to replace Sharpe. It’s telling that Bayless will reportedly exercise his veto power, preventing Fox from hiring anyone who would actually “challenge” him, ruling as judge, jury and executioner with no tolerance for dissension.

Insufferable as he is, you can’t help but feel bad for Bayless, a former journalist who devolved into something both monstrous and intoxicating, a larger-than-life character he couldn’t escape. Sports has always mythologized fierce competitors like Kobe Bryant and Michael Jordan, conveniently overlooking their more toxic traits in pursuit of a narrative that better fits our American values of hard work, tireless ambition and complete and utter commitment to a singular goal. No one would question Bayless’ drive, waking up at ungodly hours to prepare for a show that’s become his entire identity.

Bayless’ determination is admirable, though it also reeks of desperation, committing so fully to the bit that he’s devolved into a cartoon, an irredeemable sports super-villain playing the same tired notes over and over. Bayless is a slave to his own self-image, leaning so far into parody with his over-the-top Cowboys fandom, shirtless selfies and unrelenting hatred of LeBron James (what a hill to die on), that the 71-year-old has all but lost himself, a shell of the award-winning journalist who rose to prominence as an up-and-coming columnist for the Los Angeles Times, Dallas Morning News, Chicago Tribune and Sports Illustrated.

Many of these criticisms could also be applied to Stephen A. Smith, a kindred spirit who presides over his own empire as the bombastic face of ESPN, a performer who, like Bayless, has mastered the art of the viral soundbite. The bitter irony, of course, is that Smith was once brought on as Bayless’ First Take sidekick, only to outshine him at every turn, enjoying a level of privilege and celebrity that has so far eluded his former colleague.

It’s all empty calories, popcorn fare for sports fans either watching on mute at an airport Chili’s or half paying attention while scrolling through Twitter. But at least Stephen A carries himself with a certain level of self-awareness, mostly avoiding the red meat that has made Bayless so polarizing, scoffing at Dak Prescott’s mental-health struggles while showing little empathy for Damar Hamlin after his horrifying on-field collapse.

The Tucker Carlsons and Joe Rogans of the world have shrewdly figured out that controversy sells, carving lanes for themselves as token contrarians spouting unpopular opinions not rooted in anything close to reality. Bayless occupies much the same space in sports, going out on impossible limbs while antagonizing anyone with the temerity to question him.

Like Colin Cowherd and other volume shooters who churn out hot takes for a living, nothing much sticks to Bayless, his penchant for mind-numbing outlandishness serving as a shield of sorts, Teflon armor protecting him from the accountability demanded of more serious journalists. It’s a neat loophole and one that Bayless exploits regularly, though at what cost?

Not to be overly pessimistic about the declining state of sports analysis, but there is a sense of dystopian dread that lords over Bayless’ work, a hopelessness perfectly articulated by Roman Roy in Sunday’s finale of Succession, a series that explored, in painstaking detail, the cynicism and corruption so prevalent in mainstream media. Living in a world where Bayless gets to call his own shots paints a bleak portrait of what sports media has become, rewarding the loudest voice in the room at the expense of our collective dignity. Like the Roy family’s inevitable self-destruction, Bayless’ descent into unhinged caricature has been a tragedy, a wasted career spent stoking our deepest resentments and insecurities.

About Jesse Pantuosco

Jesse Pantuosco joined Awful Announcing as a contributing writer in May 2023. He’s also written for Audacy and NBC Sports. A graduate of Syracuse’s S.I. Newhouse School of Public Communications with a master’s degree in creative writing from Fairfield University, Pantuosco has won three Fantasy Sports Writers Association Awards. He lives in West Hartford, Connecticut and never misses a Red Sox, Celtics or Patriots game.