“By nature, I am quiet off the air,” he said. “My mom was real loud and that made me speak only when spoken to. But even as a child, if you challenged me, you would get both barrels.”
Mr. Bayless, 60, wore a navy-blue sweatshirt, matching cargo sweatpants and white-and-navy Fila sneakers. “You haven’t challenged me,” he pointed out. “I’ve agreed with your opinions.”
Mr. Bayless and The Observer found a surprising amount of common ground during our interview: The Atlanta Hawks are perennially overrated; the 2002-03 San Antonio Spurs were the best team in the history of that franchise; and LeBron James doesn’t deserve the MVP award because his team is too good.
Agreeing with Mr. Bayless is a disorienting experience. He argues about sports for a living. For two hours every weekday on ESPN’s First Take, the man nicknamed “The Diabolical Hater” debates a rotating cast of journalists, athletes and even rappers. He is the most polarizing figure in sports journalism, a real shit-stirrer—lobbing grenades and hurling insults without a second thought, kind of like how Kobe Bryant keeps on shooting.
Despite the show’s popularity and, yesterday, his getting an Emmy nomination for Outstanding Sports Personality, not everyone is a fan. Charles Barkley has said he wants to kill Mr. Bayless. Baltimore Ravens linebacker Terrell Suggs called him a douche bag. The sports website Deadspin labeled him “a hockey goon,” whose “sole job is to go out and start a fight with someone.” Fox Sports columnist Jason Whitlock compared him to Glenn Beck.
“Do I think he intends to be polarizing? Of course I do,” Sports Illustrated writer Richard Deitsch told The Observer, labeling Mr. Bayless a “self-proclaimed television truth-teller simply pushing his own brand of dime-store demagoguery.
“People tell me he’s a nice guy off the air,” he added. “If so, that’s even more disappointing, because few in sports television come off more loathsome on the screen.”
Even his good friends tend to hedge their praise. “Skip Bayless has been a journalist for over 30 years—that doesn’t mean he is well-liked,” First Take commentator Stephen A. Smith noted. “I’m one of his critics, and I’m one of his best friends. But even in the process of disagreeing with him, I will vouch for him as a man. His character is impeccable. He’s just crazy in terms of some of the things he thinks.”
SKIP BAYLESS OWES MUCH of his current success to three things that happened in 2011. First, in June, LeBron James, who had been his favorite punching bag for years, flopped in the NBA Finals. Gleaming with Schadenfreude, Bayless amped up the anti-LeBron rhetoric, dubbing him “LeBrick” and “The Frozen One.”
Then in August, producer Jamie Horowitz took the helm of First Take and changed the format—once a confusing mishmash of debate, SportsCenter highlights and Good Morning America-like vignettes—to two hours of live debate centered around Mr. Bayless: Crossfire for jocks. “I looked at research, and the brand that resonated most for our fans was debate,” Mr. Horowitz said.
And then there was Tim Tebow. As the ultrareligious quarterback miraculously led the Denver Broncos to the playoffs following a string of improbable comeback victories, Mr. Bayless, also a devout Christian, developed a pronounced man crush.
First Take’s numbers are up 33 percent from last year and the show’s top 10-best-rated telecasts have all aired since August.
Although the program’s debates can sometimes come off as ginned-up, Mr. Horowitz maintained that the opinions are all genuine. “If everyone agrees on a story, we don’t talk about it,” he said.
“It’s not an act,” Mr. Bayless insisted. “It’s not a character. It’s the real me. I’m not a shock jock. I never ambush anybody. I just speak my mind and my heart and my soul.”
Mr. Bayless and his First Take colleagues owe some of their success to social media. With over 525,000 Twitter followers, Mr. Bayless is a prolific tweeter, and clever videos such as the Tebow anthem “All He Does Is Win” have gone viral. More important, however, has been the program’s effort to turn sports into a never-ending drama, in which every missed free throw or clutch touchdown catch adds a new wrinkle to the narrative.
On the morning after our interview, Mr. Bayless flew to Orlando to tape an NBA All-Star Weekend edition of First Take. Feelers went out to LeBron James as a possible guest, but he declined.
Still, the gambit of luring athletes to take on Mr. Bayless in person has worked in the past. New England Patriots wide receiver Chad Ochocinco made an appearance in 2009, and in September, Miami Heat power forward Chris Bosh, the recipient of relentless fouls from Mr. Bayless, showed up to defend himself. “Everybody is aware of their critics, and he is on ESPN, so if he says a certain thing, guys know about it,” Mr. Bosh told The Observer.
Mr. Bayless said Mr. Bosh’s willingness to appear on the show earned his respect, and he even suggested the war of words was good for the seven-time NBA All-Star. “I think it helped his on-court aura a bit,” Mr. Bayless said. “It made him more confident.”
Surprisingly, Mr. Bosh agreed with his one-time tormentor. “I think it boosted my confidence to know I went in there and didn’t lose my temper,” he said. “I tried to have fun with it. At the end of the day, that show is entertainment.”
SKIP BAYLESS WAS RAISED in Oklahoma City, primarily by Katie Bell Henderson, an African-American woman employed by his grandmother. “My parents were both pretty much disasters—alcoholics both,” he said. Although Oklahoma City was still segregated, he spent summers with Ms. Henderson’s granddaughter Audrey, who would periodically visit from Chicago. Mr. Bayless, whose brother is celebrity chef Rick Bayless, said that growing up around African-Americans was crucial in shaping him. “Everything I learned about life, I learned from Katie Bell—rights and wrongs, principles,” he said, adding, “I had a great connection [with African-Americans]. When we played the black teams, they always liked me. They called me Skippy. They would kid with me after the games.” Nonetheless, he hastens to add, “I don’t try to be black. I don’t want to be the white black guy. I don’t do that.”
Mr. Bayless has told his First Take debate partners—the majority of whom are African-American—about Katie Bell and her influence on him, though he admitted, “I don’t know if this offends them or if they take it the wrong way.”
Mr. Bayless was a talented athlete growing up. He played basketball and baseball and was a rival of a future World Series MVP, the late Darrell Porter. A high school English teacher pushed him into journalism, and Mr. Bayless took to it, casting himself as a provocateur from the outset. In one of his first columns for the school paper, he trashed the baseball team’s manager (never mind the fact that Mr. Bayless was the team’s starting catcher).
After graduating from Vanderbilt University, Mr. Bayless worked for the Miami Herald and then the Los Angeles Times, where he broke the news of Joe Namath’s retirement. A committed teetotaler—“I got fed hard liquor when I was 3, 4, 5 at some of my parents’ parties, which they thought was funny”—Mr. Bayless made an exception after the flamboyant quarterback invited him to a bar in Long Beach to get the scoop of a lifetime. Two glasses of red wine later, Mr. Bayless wound up flat on his back, and the story had to wait a day. (These days, he said, Diet Mountain Dew is his only vice.)
He became the star columnist for the Dallas Morning News at 25, and was quickly poached by Dallas Times Herald. Mr. Bayless made his name covering the Cowboys. He was tough on legendary coach Tom Landry, and was early to report the dysfunctional relationship between Mr. Landry’s replacement, Jimmy Johnson, and team owner Jerry Jones. Eventually, he wrote three books on the franchise, the last of which, Hell-Bent: The Crazy Truth About the ‘Win or Else’ Dallas Cowboys, touched on the feud between Mr. Johnson’s successor, Barry Switzer, and star quarterback Troy Aikman. The book is somewhat notorious for Mr. Bayless’s investigation into Mr. Aikman’s sexuality.
“Switzer began to hear that Troy was bisexual—it was everywhere in Dallas,” he told The Observer. “Barry started asking media people if we were aware of this. He challenged me and others, ‘Why don’t you tell the truth about Troy?’” Mr. Bayless was accused of trying to out Mr. Aikman (who denied the rumors) and slammed by his peers. “His gay take on Aikman was the most unfair thing in my 45 years in journalism,” former Morning News sports editor Dave Smith told author Jeff Pearlman.
“He said that because he didn’t get the story,” Mr. Bayless said. “I obliterated the Dallas Morning News reporters from start to finish on that story. If you read the book, you will conclude that Switzer is a maniac and Troy is the hero. I’m very proud of that book.” Nobody who actually read it, he insisted, “would conclude Troy was bisexual or gay.”
Some of the details were pretty sleazy—especially an anecdote about Mr. Aikman turning down “one potential Miss Texas after another” at a country and western bar. Then again, a head coach and his supporters trying to smear their quarterback is a legitimate story, however tawdry it might be to report.
DURING OUR INTERVIEW, Mr. Bayless looked relaxed and fit—much more Felix Unger than Oscar Madison. Still, he said that First Take had taken a toll on him. “The energy drain of the show is incomprehensible,” he said.
Since the change to two hours of live debate, Mr. Bayless claims he has the hardest job at ESPN. His days really start at 6 p.m., he explained, when he watches SportsCenter. He’ll then devour games until about 1 a.m., all the while scouring the Internet for bits of data that he can employ in the next day’s debates. Upon waking at 5 a.m., he logs onto Twitter. He then runs on a treadmill for an hour before getting into ESPN’s Bristol, Connecticut, office at around 7. After the show, he often lifts weights. “I’m pretty ripped,” he said confidently. “The pressure of the show drains me. It’s why I work out so hard. It’s why I’m jacked. I have to be to stand up to the beating of it.”
Mr. Bayless is currently engaged to Ernestine Sclafani, a publicist. They met seven years ago at ESPN and on their first date, he informed her that he is married to his job. (His first marriage, to his junior high sweetheart, ended in 1980.)
After leaving Dallas, Mr. Bayless bounced around between several papers, landing full-time in 2004 at ESPN.com, where he’d been a contributor since 1989. He discontinued his ESPN column in 2007, and while he said he misses writing and professed to have another book planned, he said his First Take gig—and the notoriety that has come with it—was plenty fulfilling for the time being.
“I find that people love to hate me, and a lot of people love to love me,” he said. “And fortunately, they all love to watch the show.”