I found myself liking Stephen A. Smith the other day. It was a first for me.
I realized quickly though that it was just because he was sharing the camera with Skip Bayless, who might as well have been barfing onto the debate desk of ESPN's First Take. Sitting across from Bayless, I realized, makes just about anybody seem likeable.
Skip Bayless is absolutely unwatchable.
His shtick is tired and deliberate. Its sole purpose is to rile up the masses and garner attention. That goes for viewers and athletes alike. All sports fans -- especially the (unemployed?) ones who have the spare couch time to watch First Take every morning -- would be far better off not watching his show.
Even when I agree with Skip Bayless on an issue, his arguments make me cringe. I find myself wanting to disagree with him, just so he doesn't feel validated if I get the result I want. Basically, I end up wanting to root against Bayless, and that's just way to distracting for a casual sports fan.
Skip Bayless rips into the most talented athletes in the world for the slivers of weakness that sometimes make them human.
I know: Those highly paid athletes chose their places of prominence, and so they deserve an appropriate level of scrutiny. But it's frustrating to watch the greatness go ignored as this guy dishes the criticism.
The best example is prime-career, pre-divorce Tiger Woods. Here's a Bayless argument I heard several times back when I used to regularly put myself through episodes of First Take while getting ready for work.
"I'm still not convinced he's the greatest until he can come from behind on Sunday!" Or something along those lines. That's not a quote, but here's more on the subject.
Bayless would routinely criticize Tiger Woods simply because Tiger racked up victories by gaining large leads on Saturdays and holding them on Sundays, rather than mounting final-day comebacks.
Note that this is before all of the divorce/injury/caddie drama of recent years. This was around the time Tiger beat Rocco Mediate in one of the most Amazing U.S. Opens of all time.
Skip Bayless is a master contrarian with a lawyer-like ability to distort facts in favor of the stances he staunchly defends. He then clings to them until he is either validated, or until the argument falls apart, at which point he builds a new argument to explain the outside elements that caused the first one to crumble. He's really good at it, and it affords him the luxury of never being wrong, technically.
But let's be honest: As fans and analysts, we can't always be right, and that's part of the fun of sports. If we could, the games would cease to be interesting.
I personally think it's endearing to watch sports personalities absorb their losses, especially when it's done with some combination of embarrassment and humor.
But that's not the Bayless way. He's a master provocateur; his job is to torture people so that they will lash out at him on Twitter and then tune in to the next day's "lively debate" about Tim Tebow between he and good ol' Stephen A.
He's the sports equivalent of Sean Hannity. He holds your attention only because he pisses you off. And his formula has reached its apex with the arrival of the aforementioned Tebow.
Bayless loves Tebow, in part because so many traditionalists don't, I'm guessing. Note: I root for Tebow as well, mostly because I love a good sports story and Tim Tebow is a journalist's dream.
Bayless told Stephen A. Smith that he never worried about the Broncos or Tebow during that comeback game against the Dolphins, even when they were down 15-0 with just a few minutes left. Tebow had played a horrendous game up to that point.
Bayless said he was not at all surprised when Tebow mounted that comeback, (which depended heavily on a successful onside kick that didn't involve Tebow).
Honestly, I'm not sure I'd be writing this blog if Bayless were to have said in response to that game, "Oh man, Tebow looked horrible for 55 minutes. I thought I was going to have to come into First Take and eat my words, Stephen A.! But, as I've said a million times, Tebow is the ultimate no-huddle, shotgun quarterback out there, and we've seen him pull off these late-game comebacks time and time again. He's truly an amazing man."
But he didn't say that. He said he never doubted them even a little bit. Really? Geez.
When Tony Kornheiser and Michael Wilbon talk Tebow, they touch all sides of the issue, and then they leave the topic with a willingness to watch him play the next week and see from there. Their stance evolves as Tebow plays. They don't bring a predetermined agenda into the debate and dedicate their time, regardless of new developments, to its defense. It's productive and entertaining.
Bill Simmons and Cousin Sal keep their thoughts thickly buried in wit and sarcasm, but they snapshot the situation effectively, and then they move on to celebrity gossip, inside jokes, and betting lines. Also quality.
Tony Reali just hands out fake points (annoying) to a disheveled Woody Paige (annoying), who appears as if he has just annihilated a bottle of Old Crow (Now that'd be good TV).
I watched a few episodes of First Take last week as "research" for this blog. Now that it's up, I'll tune out once again. My realization is that it's not a good idea to start your day with an "always heated discussion" like the one that takes place on First Take. The vibes are bad, and the effects linger.
Instead, watch Sportcenter and develop your own opinions. Or sleep an extra 20 minutes and don't watch anything at all until the evening, when the actual games are played.
Follow Justin Cox on Twitter: www.twitter.com/CoxJustin