Not only was Cari Champion underutilized by ESPN’s First Take, but she feels they missed out on the opportunity to highlight a Black woman having a rare prominent position on a daytime TV show.
On a recent episode of the I Am Athlete podcast hosted by Brandon Marshall, Brandon Jennings, Michael Bennett, and Nick Young, Champion described getting the gig with Skip Bayless and Stephen A. Smith on First Take, a show she moderated from 2012-2015. (She’s seen above on it in 2014.) Champion was very complimentary of Bayless and Smith, lauding their work ethic and talent. But she described her on-air role with First Take in a less than positive light, explaining that she was underutilized and borderline muzzled.
“At the time, and we can do the research, nobody was Monday through Friday on a popular two-hour TV show that was a Black woman,” Champion said. “And they just, they let me know I didn’t matter. Intentionally, unintentionally, it was obvious, it was just like, ‘you don’t matter, just be happy that you’re here. Ask questions, don’t talk, just be happy that you’re here.’”
Champion didn’t state whether the implied directive came from management, production, or the hosts. But it’s important to note the different path First Take has taken since Bayless left the show in 2016. When Champion was on First Take, her role was as a moderator. She introduced the question or topic and stated when it was time for a commercial.
Champion’s replacement on First Take, Molly Qerim, has taken on a larger role in recent years, contributing to the conversation rather than only introducing the debate. As much as Stephen A. Smith has the ability to dominate any conversation, he has welcomed different voices and perspectives on First Take, especially since removing Max Kellerman from the show last year.
Conversely, Fox Sports and Bayless have constructed Undisputed to mimic the older version of First Take, which included a moderator that didn’t contribute to conversations. Last summer, then-host Jenny Taft called Bayless out for a moronic take about Mike McCarthy’s weight, and he was visibly seething at her for speaking up.
Earlier this year, Taft departed Undisputed and has been replaced by Jen Hale. This isn’t a knock against Hale, but the landscape of Undisputed doesn’t require a third personality. Whereas since Bayless departed ESPN, First Take has relished having a person in Qerim who can offer a different perspective from Smith and his guest debaters.
Considering the direction Bayless has driven Undisputed vs the direction Smith is taking First Take, it would seem as though Bayless wasn’t going to push back on the “don’t talk, be happy that you’re here” implied mandate felt by Champion years ago.