On a recent episode of Recode Media with Peter Kafka, Fox Sports 1’s Skip Bayless explained why arguing on TV is a lot harder than it looks.
You can read some of the highlights from Peter’s interview with Skip at that link, or listen to it in the audio player above. Below, we’ve posted a lightly edited complete transcript of the conversation.
If you like this, be sure to subscribe to Recode Media on iTunes, Google Play Music, TuneIn and Stitcher.
Transcript by Celia Fogel.
Peter Kafka: I'm here with Skip Bayless from Fox Sports 1. Skip, it's 9:30 on Los Angeles time, you've been up since when?
Skip Bayless: 2 am LA time, but I don't want to acknowledge that publicly because my watch is still on East Coast time, so in my head it was 5 am which is when I always got up for the previous show that I did on ESPN for the previous 12 years. I was always up at 5 am and so I just think in my head, "They're up, I better be up."
So you basically don't sleep at this point.
I try. Sunday/Monday nights are the rough ones because we got the late games. But I'm on the same schedule I was for all those years at ESPN. I get four hours, four and a half if I'm lucky on those two nights. I caught up a little bit with six hours last night.
What a luxurious six hours of sleep. You look good.
I don't know about that but I'll take it.
Thanks for making time. I didn't get to hear the show, I didn't get to see the show this morning. What was the topic du jour?
You actually missed a pretty good one. We have two and a half hours of topics du jour, so we had a lot of hot topics. One concerned Tim Tebow, which is always a hot topic on our show, whether he is a selfish self promoter. That was hot.
Just remind me, Tim Tebow is no longer playing football.
He's playing baseball right now.
Right, hasn't been for a couple years.
He's talking about football — or at least college football — on ESPN.
But he's still catnip for you guys.
He is for the world I think, right? The media has gathered in droves down at Port St. Lucie, Florida, to check him out at the Mets instructional camp. So he will play minor league baseball all summer long and I'm sure we will discuss how he continues to look from night to night to night. But we also had a topic that was dear to our hearts. There are those on our show, especially my debate partner Shannon Sharpe, not a big Tom Brady fan, and he believes that Brady's legacy has been diminished by the stand-in quarterbacks playing so sensationally well. Jimmy Garoppolo now, Matt Cassel back in 2008 when they went 11-5, as you recall. And they missed the playoffs but Matt Cassel had a very good year. So we went back and forth heatedly about that one.
So I saw your Twitter feed. You're pro Brady and then on the Tim Tebow shameless self promoter scale, you're on which side of that?
I'm anti that. He is nothing like that and I know Tim well enough to make that statement. He's 1000 percent authentic. And does he have a big ego? Yeah, every franchise quarterback, every Hall of Famer I've ever met, had a huge ego. Tim has that. But is he selfish? Selfish player is the guy who wrecks his team because he wants to be the star. He wants to be catered to and he wants to have the ball in his hands every play. Tim Tebow wants nothing but to win by any way possible. And as I said before his draft that year, if you take him late in the first round and you allow him to run the offense he ran at Florida in college football, he won't make a Pro Bowl but he can win games in the National Football League. Which is exactly what he did.
Let's fall back for people who aren't steeped in sports media. You're here in Los Angeles working for Fox instead of ESPN because you came over here recently, it's a big deal in the sports media world. You've been at ESPN forever.
Twelve years, full time. Why did you come to Fox Sports which even still has a substantially lower profile than ESPN. You were a star at ESPN. What got you to Los Angeles?
By the way, that profile is changing quickly, just for the record.
Yeah, we'll talk about that.
The main reason I came here was for Jamie Horowitz, whom you have spoken with. He runs Fox Sports 1.
Former ESPN executive.
He was the former show runner on an interim basis of my show called “First Take” back in ... when was it? 2011. It was the Tebow breakthrough year, ironically. I had my career breakthrough with Jamie Horowitz being given the reins to what was called “First Take” but was still a show called “Cold Pizza” which originated in New York CIty back in '04. And I had been called by the previous sort of CEO or president of ESPN named Mark Shapiro — you're aware of Mark.
And Mark had said, "I've got a signature show that we've started in New York City, which is a morning variety show."
It was a live morning talk show that no one watched.
It was loosely based on sports, it didn't really have a strong sports component. And he said, "We've got to quote-unquote ‘sports it up.’” So he said, "You've done a lot of work for us at ESPN — part-time work, hit-and-miss work here and there," and I had. I had been on a number of different shows, “Sports Reporters,” a show called “Prime Monday,” a prelude to “Monday Night Football.” Mark was a big fan of mine and he said, "Please come to New York and try to help save my show that might not be salvageable at this point." And so I closed my eyes and I plunged and because we added the debate component to “Cold Pizza,” it wasn't my presence, it was its presence that it started to [pick up].
The format, the idea of having a debate about a topic du jour.
Four times in the two hours, four times for eight to ten minutes, we debate sports topics. And my debate partner was Woody Paige then and he was more a morning sort of court jester if you will. He didn't love debate but we still got into it pretty heavily and the audience started to gravitate to that. And we started to rate, we started to make money. And Mark left and went about his way, and then three years in, because of a big regime change at ESPN, finally they said, "Let's pull all the plugs on all of Mark Shapiro's New York City shows." Boom, boom, boom. Stephen A. Smith's “Quite Frankly,” the ESPN Classic show that Josh Elliott was doing, Howie Schwab's “Stump the Schwab.” "Let's pull all those plugs but we better not pull that ‘Cold Pizza’ plug, it's making money, let's move it to Bristol, Connecticut." So they changed the name to “First Take” but the format was still “Cold Pizza.” It was pet segments and cooking segments and loosely based on sports segments with the debate: Every half hour we do our 10-minute debates, four times in the show. And when I would see the cumulative ratings for our show in those days, they would go du-du-du-du-du BOOM spike, du-du-du-du BOOM spike, four spikes a show. When Jamie Horowitz took over he looked at the one-year cum ratings and he said, "What are we doing?!" And the ratings gurus would come in who didn't watch our show and they'd say, "Whatever you folks are doing every 20 minutes, you better check your show logs, your run downs, did you do an interview there? Or a pet segment there?"
I've listened to sports documentary for decades, it's based around debate. Talk radio is based around debate. It's a really old and time-tested format. Why was this news at ESPN and why is it even a controversial discussion to talk about whether or not there should be more or less debate on sports TV?
You've listened to sports radio, but I was part of the initial debate on ESPN which started on the “Sports Reporters” on Sunday mornings. Dick Schaap, may he rest in peace, close friend of mine, and I started in 1989 doing that in bits and pieces, and then we took our segments from there. It was Michael Wilbon and Mitch Albom and I and we started doing roundtable debates on this “Prime Monday” show every Monday night during football season before “Monday Night Football.” And the point was we were live and we would get into it. And that was a little uncomfortable for ESPN because it's hard to control where that debate might go. Sports radio, no real boundaries.
So it's something that's easier to pull off on radio than it is on TV.
It's more conversational on radio and the segments are 12 minutes long and if you're a prisoner in your car driving — which you usually are when you're listening to sports radio — you're probably not going to turn it off because you're thinking about the light changed yellow and you're looking at the scenery and it'll go in one ear and out the other. And they're just talking, back and forth. Sometimes they debate, but it's not specific.
And it can ramble.
It rambles. And you're okay with it because you're just going to stay there with that. But on television it has to be a specific yes or no, up or down question. Right or left, pro or con. And you have to deliver a quick thesis statement, and again, it's hard to watch two talking heads for very long so it better be hot and it better be focused and it better be compelling. And we started to be, I thought, compelling enough that ESPN got more and more comfortable with, "Okay, we can let that happen to this point, but we don't want a whole show of debate." Jamie Horowitz walked in and in two weeks he had the guts and the vision to say, "What are you guys doing?! I'm going to blow out ‘Cold Pizza’ remnants in this show. We're going to go wall to wall, two hours of debate, I'm going to build it around Skip" — because I was the one constant he had left there — "and we're going to have a rotation of come one, come all, take on Skip debaters," analysts, ex-players, maybe some journalists. And that's what we did for a whole football season. I can't tell you how many people stopped me in the hallway at ESPN and said, "Good luck with this, but you guys are going to fall hard on your faces and Jamie Horowitz is going to take a big career hit here." And he put his career on his line for me and for that format and within three months we doubled our ratings. Within a year we tripled and then as we continued on for five-six years, we quadrupled our rating. And we were, I think, the biggest success story at ESPN given our format.
So you become a star, you make a ton of money there. You're at ESPN, which even though it's challenged now is by far the dominant sports network, I still believe the major sports network.
Quick point of order: I did not make a ton of money at ESPN. But go ahead.
I bet you were not poorly paid.
By what I was giving them, I was poorly paid. I was the most underpaid on-air talent at ESPN for 12 years. That's my opinion. In the end they came around, but that went on for a long time. But go ahead.
So Jamie Horowitz leaves ESPN, goes to NBC for a cup of coffee, they kick him out the door and he comes here, he comes to you and he says, "Come join my network that has almost no one watching it. I'll pay you a bunch" — reportedly $5.5 million. It seems like ESPN would pay you about the same if they wanted to keep you. I'm sure they did want to keep you.
In the end they went beyond their call of duty. They offered a lot and they offered Stephen A. Smith and I a segment on “Monday Night Football Halftime,” which would have been huge for us, it was a dream of mine.
So they would have given you more promotion and at least the same amount of money on the sports leader. Why go to a network that no one is watching?
You just said more promotion, I would disagree with that. I don't think we would have gotten any more promotion, we would have gotten the visibility of the “Monday Night Football” stage, which would have been significant, but Jamie went out on the limb for me, I was ready to go out on the limb for him at the network quote unquote "nobody was watching." Early in my career, I worked here in Los Angeles for the LA Times, and I loved it here. I felt home here. I had a chance at 26 years of age to be the lead columnist at the Dallas Morning News, and I took it because I wanted to be a columnist and sports editor at the LA Times said, "You're too young, you need ten more years of experience before you can have a clue about the perspective required to write a daily sports column." And I said, "Watch this." And I went to Dallas and we did okay. But the point is that I missed LA as soon as I left it and I said, "If I ever get that opportunity, I'm going to go back."
And if you know me and you see my career choices that I made at every fork in the road, I always took the harder fork. And this was the much harder fork. My wife was asking me the same question you're asking me for about a year because I knew this was possible and I still had a year left on my deal. "Why would you walk away from the No. 1 show on the worldwide leader? You have it made." And I said, "Because of what you just said. I have it made. I don't want to have it made." And she then, or when I finally took the job, she bought me a great card which says on the front, "Life begins at the end of your comfort zone." My comfort zone is over and I have gone into a very uncomfortable zone here on our launch. But I am very happy here because I'm reunited not just with Jamie, but he brought all of his lieutenants, the five smartest people I've ever worked with in media, newspapers, radio or television are all here. So you know what happens when you usually take a job. You go out to dinner with the CEO or the president.
Which you did, right?
Once. Well barely, I met Eric Shanks but Jamie runs FS1. But my point is, usually somebody comes to hire you and you say, "Well I don't really know these people but I went to dinner with them twice and they seem like really good people." Really? Can you take that to the bank? Are they going to be really good people a month down the road, two months, six months? I know Jamie. I've been to battle with Jamie and all of his lieutenants. I saw them under fire, I saw what they would do and what they wouldn't do when the controversy was bearing down on us, because we faced a lot of controversial incidents while we were on “First Take” together. And he stood his ground and he fought for me the way no one has ever fought for me, so I did owe him this. But it was also a thank you God opportunity that I could go back to LA and work out of Fox. And I remind you this: I did work here quite a bit through the early 2000s when it was Fox Sports Net. Stephen A. Smith and I did shows together with Jim Rome. I did the “Best Damn Sports Show” and often a guest host on that frequently. Every time I walked in this building, and it was this building, I felt comfortable here. I never felt comfortable in Bristol, Connecticut. It wasn't really me. I wasn't made for them even though I did well there. And I ... it's like winning in spite of, I won in spite of at ESPN.
When you announced you were coming here you said, "Well now that I'm coming to Fox I can do things I couldn't do at ESPN, the shackles are off." There's billboards around town with you coming out of a birdcage, holding a birdcage and it's open. It seems like you were doing the same thing you were doing in Bristol. Like the same format, the same kind of discussion. What is it that you can do at Fox that you couldn't do at ESPN?
We're not owned by Walt Disney. Again. That's Mickey and Goofy and this is “The Simpsons” and “Family Guy,” and it's different here. The boundaries, the out of bounds, are the same here, but we can go deeper.
So give me an example, something you could push, something you couldn't push at Disney.
We got into a race topic today and I went really deep on the incident in Tulsa, Oklahoma. And I would have been very skittish on ESPN, especially over the last couple of years, because we were on probation so often. I was like this the whole time, and it was fine. I loved my time at ESPN, don't underestimate how much I loved it because I did, I did not love living in Bristol with my wife working in New York City, that was a hard arrangement to pull off.
That's a two-and-a-half-hour commute.
You got it. That's on a good day. So on the race topic, on ESPN I would have talked to our ombudsman on our show, Chuck Salituro, who is a close friend of mine, he's a dear friend and a very smart man, but he would take me in the hall after the morning meeting and say, "Think about this now. Do you really want to go here? Think about it." And it wasn't that he was telling me, "Don't say this." He would just say, "Think about what the out of bounds are here and don't step over them," because the people who run ESPN to a fault pay way too much attention to what I think are insignificant bloggers making irrelevant statements about what happens on ESPN. It just doesn't matter to us. We were the worldwide leader.
You think they're a more conservative company, lowercase C, than Rupert Murdoch, who is actually politically conservative but a more buccaneer.
Sure, sure. I mean, but it's Walt Disney. And I got reminded of that often and I embraced it. I said, "You know what? You're right." So today on the race topic, the incident in Tulsa, I plunged on it. And I'm talking to two black men, Ray Lewis, Shannon Sharpe, and I said, "I need some help here. I don't want to try this case in the court of public opinion, but let's walk through, what did Terence Crutcher do that he shouldn't have done or that he should have done?" And we walked through it and I went to a place that a lot of people would say was pretty controversial.
I was completely comfortable because I'm very comfortable talking about race topics because I always just disqualify myself, "I'm not a black guy. I don't know how you feel. I don't walk in your shoes, I'm just a white guy." But we went to some really deeper places there that I would have been a little hesitant on ESPN and over the last two or three years, you don't know how many times on live national TV I would do that split second psyche decision of, "Should I? Nah. Just let that go."
And like you said, you've been called out by bloggers, press critics, Richard Deitsch at Sports Illustrated.
I read none of it, I don't even know who you're talking about, so I don't know.
Sometimes the players have called you out, right? Richard Sherman called you out.
And they are welcome to come on the show any time. And speaking of Richard Sherman, that was a landmark turning point incident for our show because that was early in the Jamie regime and just to give you a quick point of order — I know we're not doing sports talk here — but we were doing an afternoon show at that point, auditioning for a permanent afternoon show on ESPN1. On big ESPN. We were obviously on E2. So we were going to continue doing our two-hour morning show from 10-12 eastern time, but just to audition for six straight weeks, we would come back in the afternoon and do a half-hour show from — and it bounced — but let's say 3 to 3:30 on E1. And we were successfully executing that show and we were two days from finish. This was Thursday before the final show on Friday. My partner Stephen A. was over the moon about the prospect of having an afternoon show on E1. Maybe we would reduce the time in E2 in the morning. And Richard Sherman's people contacted us in the off-season, he wasn't yet Richard Sherman, they were a team on the rise and on the verge, but he hadn't sort of ...
He hadn't broken out.
No, and hadn't sort of seized the national consciousness just yet. But he had taken on Tom Brady on the field after a big upset went up in Seattle over New England, and he had called out Darrelle Revis on Twitter and Revis had made the mistake of responding to someone who wasn't on his level yet. And he had done the same to Roddy White on Twitter. So I should have thought, "Maybe he's going to try to do the same thing on our stage," which was considered the biggest stage in sports media. But I didn't think that because his people said to my producer, "Hey, Richard's tired of the controversy, he'd like to talk a little off-season football."
So we're only on for a half hour, I said, "Fine, let's talk to him about the Seahawks versus the 49ers, could the Seahawks break through in the division this year. Fine." So we start the show and the producer says in my ear, "He's not ready yet. Can you vamp?" And so we did a quick discussion that lasted for two minutes about how close is Richard Sherman to becoming the best cornerback in pro football. And of course I said, "Well he's not Darrelle Revis yet," and I added the yet to it, but I was adamant about, "Please, stop it." And then we went to break while we could see him in the monitor getting mic'd up. And you know the rest of the story. As soon as our moderator asked him a football question, he ignored her question, as we opened our B block, and he personally attacked me because — I'm pretty sure it was premeditated on Richard's part.
So you think that's premeditated and in your mind do you think, "That's something he means," or that he wants to make a splash and he's making a statement to make a statement?
I don't know Richard so I can't speak for him, but it was clearly premeditated because he came right at me, and yet, here's the irony of this discussion, I love that.
So you love that.
I would love to fight fire with fire. But my handcuffs were on because we were one day from concluding our audition, okay?
But the notion of having a premeditated take and wanting to make a splash, this is something that people say about talk radio, general sports talk, about you in general.
Not about me.
It's an argument for argument's sake.
Nope. Never. Never on our show.
There's always an open question about whether you believe what you're saying or whether you just want to have a counterpoint.
Okay, now I'm going to tell you the truth. In my 12 years on ESPN and my going on three weeks here on Fox Sports 1, I have never ever contrived one debate. Anybody who has ever known me or been to our morning meetings will know that when I walk in the door at 4 am LA time as I did this morning, my opinions are in concrete.
You're not winking about this. This is a show but you believe it, you believe what you're saying.
I believe it with all my heart and soul, to a fault. I am as stubborn as they come, they all laugh at me. But to heck with all of them because it's who I am and what I believe. I win the debates, I always say at night. I've done all my prep, I've gotten all my ammo in a row on each of the debates that we might do. We're not sure until 4 am because we're ready for anything that might have broken or we have different ways to go. But generally I know 80 percent when I go to sleep for my four hours, that we're going to do maybe two thirds of what I have on my sheets. And I start with the 6 o'clock ESPN sports center making notes and basically they rely on me to produce the show. I'm going to bring the topics, I'll call them into the producer late at night and he'll put them up on the board, and then today we kind of rejiggered everything at 4 o'clock. But my point is, my opinions don't ever change when I walk in. Now if there's breaking news and Shannon Sharpe and I agree on our take on it, we'll just do it. And we can't disagree on everything because that's not human.
Because occasionally Shannon's going to agree with you, right?
Absolutely. But here was the beauty of my relationship with Stephen A. and something I'm starting to develop chemistry-wise with Shannon. If we do agree, and I do go first, and I say, “Boom, boom, boom,” to open the show, one of those booms, if he will listen carefully and trust himself, might cause him to say, “I agree with you in the big picture, but did you just say that X is Y?” “Yeah, I said X is Y! What's it to you!?” You know, like it's going to go like that and maybe we take a hard left turn out of a basic agreement into a disagreement. Case in point, it was our second show. I'm not an Andrew Luck fan and I think the world continues to give Andrew Luck a pass. And I dug in before he was drafted that he's a turnover waiting to happen. And he's turned into an NFL turnover machine. But all I ever hear is, "Andrew Luck, first ballot Hall of Famer." And I say, “What are you seeing? What are your eyes telling you? Because I can show you the numbers. His first and third year he was second in the NFL in total turnovers. Now, that won't work!” And the other day his coach finally criticized him because he had two late turnovers against Denver.
So you come out with that, and the point is Shannon eventually agreed with you?
And he came around and it shocked me because I thought in the meeting, I thought he was going to disagree. And I came so hard at him to open the topic that he said, "You know what, you're right."
Now you got a problem.
Okay, but here's what happened. So we continued to discuss and I have no idea, I'd have to go back and watch the tape, how we got here, but we got back to me saying, “I would have stuck with Peyton Manning if I'm Jim Irsay in Indianapolis, I've got Peyton Manning!” Remember he had his neck issues. And yet his doctors kept telling the Colts front office, “He's going to be fine.”
But the Colt's doctors said, “Eh, we're not going to trust it, we think he's washed up, he'll never rebound from his neck surgery.” So they said, “We've got a chance to draft Andrew Luck, first ballot Hall of Famer. We're going to do that and we're going to push Peyton Manning out the back door.” And what did he do when he went to Denver? And again, I'm not being a hypocrite, this is in 20/20 hindsight, I said then, "This is a big mistake to push Peyton Manning out the back door” because he goes to Denver, he should have won two straight MVPs, and then he finally wins, as you know, this past Super Bowl. So he would have given Indianapolis a much better chance to win Super Bowls for the next three years than Andrew Luck. So when I said that he's like, “What?”
So now you've got an argument.
All of a sudden. And it was 1000 percent authentic.
Are you consciously saying, "We've got to find something where we can have traction here?"
Nope, no, I don't think like that.
Because he's just nodding, if he's nodding at me for the next ten minutes, we've got a problem with the segment.
Okay, but I just keep plunging and pushing and I do have ...
I'm mostly prepped at night to go to level two, three and four, to win the debate. If I have to reach for this, I'll reach for this, this and this. And I'm also prepared, if he goes first, to scrap everything I have on my page, all my notes. I will scrap them if he says something that is ludicrous to me. And then I will trust myself and my recall to go way over there and battle him on that front.
You were just explaining how to do — I said, "How to do radio," you said, "No, no, we're doing TV." I do think there's a throughline between sports talk radio, what you're doing, and the internet. It seems to me that there's a commonality and that a lot of these things that are successful are designed for argument. You said you don't really pay attention to the internet.
You don't read the bloggers. But a lot of what's happening on the internet around sports is a version of what you're doing on air. It's a debate about a topic, it happens very quickly. In a world where there's a million different places to get controversy, to get sports content, and when anyone can create content and weigh in on this stuff through Twitter, whatever platform they want, how do you figure out, "Alright, I'm going to break through the noise." Because it only gets noisier every day.
I think it's a great question, and I don't have a great answer because I don't pay enough attention to what you're asking me about. That is the question and I'm actually proud of the fact, I don't think about it. Because to me I can only do what I do and what I've been doing for a long, long time. And I can tell you this: When we bring in people, ex players, occasionally a journalist, maybe a coach, and they say, “This is cake. Just put me on there, I'll beat you guys into the dirt here.” It's not that easy to do on television. It's a much faster medium, where to hold people's attention you have to bring passion and emotion and back-up. You have to be able to reinforce your argument quickly and powerfully and clearly on television in ways that you can get away without doing on radio. And it's such a visual medium that I just spill over with passion.
So I don't know how to bottle that. I can't teach it, I can't coach it, I can't create it. It's just who I am. And so I'm going to go in there every day, I'm relentless, I wear people out that I debate against. I wore out Stephen A. a lot of days and he'd say, "Would you just please calm down and back off," because segment after segment after hour after hour, that's all I pride myself on is I'm going to bring it as hard as I can bring it. And remember, I am trying to win every debate. There's no tricking them up, there's no contriving them, I just want to win! So I'm competing with Shannon and he's asking me about, "Man, how …?" because I work out hard because you need to be in really good shape to do this for two-and-a-half hours. So that's a big component in this, that to stay fresh and to endure you need [stamina].
You're talking about physically working out. There's a Journal profile of your biceps popping.
No, I'm talking about ... oh, well, thank you.
You're talking about mentally?
Well both, but the physical aids the mental. You need to physically be able to stand up like right now. I just finished a show and not to gross you out, get too graphic, but I got a t-shirt on underneath and it's soaking wet and it's soaked down all the way to the top of my underwear because I'm so focused, I'm fighting so hard. We had this Tom Brady battle to start off with and we had a Tim Tebow battle and we had a couple in between that I'm forgetting about, a Floyd Mayweather battle. I am fighting for my life because you can get exposed and humiliated like that on TV.
So let's stipulate that what you're doing is hard and that not everyone gets to do it. Very few people can do it. But everyone's trying it. And it gets louder and louder and more cacophonous. You're on Twitter, you've got two million followers. I noticed you're not following anyone.
I always say, I'm a leader not a follower.
[laughs] So your thought is, "I'm just not going to pay attention to the noise. I'm going to do what I'm doing and that's my answer."
As hard as I can do it, day after day, and I'm going to try to be relentlessly great at it. I know I don't live up to that but I'm going to give it that kind of — it sounds cliched — but it's like crazed dedication. And anybody who knows me will tell you I am a psycho about this, but I think I'm a good psycho. I think I'm like a good-hearted psycho, but I'm crazy. And I'm the first to tell you I'm crazy. I live for this. I'm obsessed with it.
Because it's live TV, because you're working so hard, because you're sweating down to your underwear, you must screw up, right? You must say things you regret, especially because you're pushing, right?
I don't ever remember saying anything that I regretted. I screw up where I forget something like, “I shoulda said that.” But as far as crossing the line, “How did I say that?” I'm pretty good at that.
“I wish I didn't say that.” You don't want to take anything back.
Nope, I've never had any. I'm knocking on some kind of wood here if I can find it.
Yes, I'll knock on formica, thank you very much. I've never regretted anything I've said on live TV or live radio. But I have regretted that I forgot to say that, or I shouldn't have let him get away with that, or it's such an imperfect medium because it's going so fast and we have people in our ears saying, "Gotta wrap," like not that they're going to stop us cold because we have two and a half hours but we had Doug Baldwin today from the Seattle Seahawks, it was our first guest that we've had on TV. So he's mic-ed up ready to go, and we were involved in what was an escalating lift-off Floyd Mayweather Jr. debate, and I was not finished. But it's the imperfection of live TV where the producer Chris says in my ear, "Man, we've got to go." And he was apologetic about it but I had to just say, "Okay, I give up, we'll finish this later."
So you're doing live TV now but one of the things you did earlier in LA, you were doing newspaper reporting. At the beginning of your career when you were you at a conventional sports reporting job. Did you see this path ahead of you? Or was it sort of step by step and one thing led to another and through happenstance. Or did you plot this out?
No plot. Didn't see it. I never saw becoming a writer. Neither of my parents finished high school. I grew up in Oklahoma City. There was no writing background, journalism background in my family.
Your brother is Rick Bayless, the awesome Chicago chef.
But he's more predictable because my father owned a little hole-in-the-wall barbeque restaurant on the other side, sort of the quote-unquote “wrong side” of town. And we were not wealthy people. It'd sort of come and go as the restaurant business rises and falls as it does. I don't recommend it to anyone. But my brother started at age 3 or 4 going with my father early in the morning to cook. And so he got the cooking bug and he had the cooking gene.
So you could see that path.
Yeah, it's predictable, but you couldn't see my path until ... I always wanted to play sports and I was pretty good at sports and then — not to bore you with this but just to tell you how this got launched — my sophomore year of high school, fatefully, sort of a thank you God, I'd taken an advanced English course at a public high school, the only course of the day that was taught by the journalism teacher who had four other hours, five other horus, of journalism.
But she taught one advanced English course, sophomores. First day of school she assigns a book report. She said, “I want it to be one page, you choose a book, don't care what it is, I want to see if you can write.” I'd never tried to write in my life except my name. And I of course chose a sports biography of an old New York Giants quarterback named Y.A. Tittle and I didn't write a book report, I wrote a critique of it. I don't know what prompted it, it just spilled out. Friday, as the bell rang, she said, "Skip Bayless, I want to see you after class." And she was a scary, intimidating teacher and my friends looked at me like, “What did you do?” And I walked up and she said, “You're coming into journalism.” I said, “No I'm not, I don't have any interest.” And she said, “You're going to write my sports column.” I said, “I don't write.” She said, “Yes you do. You have the gift, you can do this. You're going to do this.” I said, “I play.” She said, “You can play and you can write.” That launched me on this path. How I got into TV, because I always thought of myself as a writer ...
And you did straight reporting and then you became a columnist.
But right away I was writing columns for her about the teams my senior year. I wrote a column blasting the baseball coach for whom I was playing! [PK laughs] You ever heard anything like that? And he later told a friend of mine that if he ever saw me again he was going to quote-unquote “kill me.” So that was the first taste of what I'm made of, what I'm all about. But along the way, along the trail, my mom, who I have no idea what possessed her, she's told me it's because her mom did this, she made me take speech lessons, as in public speaking lessons from this woman in the back room of her house. And I would have to go every Wednesday and memorize some silly poem and give it to her like I was giving it. And then we'd have a big recital, you'd have to give it to all the parents. You'd do an oration or a poem. It was great for me because I'm actually a little shy by nature but if you put me in front of a microphone or a camera or a big audience, I'll go. And it came from my mom. She had that sort of dynamo gene in her. So thank you, Mom, for that. But I had it. And so as radio came into vogue, in sort of the middle of my newspaper career, people said, "You got to do a radio show." So I started doing a Dallas radio show and then along the way I did it in Chicago and I did it in the Bay Area. And then TV came into vogue. For a while early in my career the newspaper guys laughed at the TV idiots. You know, the boobs, the talking heads and the funny suits. And all of a sudden I became one of those guys.
Because they found out ... Now there's a path for you, you want to get out of newspapers because that's a dying industry anyway. And of course radio and TV, one, pays better often. It looks a lot easier than having to go and type up a story and do the interview, and it seems like sitting in a booth and talking seems much easier. Could you do what you're doing now as well as you do it now had you not been a traditional reporter early in your career?
It taught me to think. To think through a story, to see it and feel it. And the ability to write is crucial to my arguments because in the morning before the show, I'll take each topic and I'll jot notes. Now again, I'm not going to refer to the notes, but I'm flash memorizing the way you would cram for a college midterm. I'm doing it every morning, I'm writing my thoughts down, but I'm writing them in clear, clean hopefully entertaining sentences.
With a pen.
With a pen. And I take them out and in the break I skim my notes. "Yeah, yeah, yeah, I got this, I got this." And I can see my notes in my mind's eye as we go. And then hopefully if he goes over there, I can remember that down at the bottom of my page I went over here. And you can, on live TV, if you have a stat that you can't quite remember, “Was it 823 or 833?” You can glance quickly at that if you need to throw it back in his face, which I would often do.
So the exercise of being a reporter, figuring out what a story is, how to do the editing, that has direct application on what you're doing now. Because again, I think a lot of people think, “Oh I can just go straight from Oklahoma to national TV.” And there's really no gap. You don't need that experience.
Think of the education I got. I covered, to start off with, I was in LA covering Chuck Knox's LA Rams. They're back now to LA but I covered the Rams when they were the LA Rams. Then I went to Dallas and I sat at the knee of Tom Landry, the great and powerful Tom Landry. And then I went to Chicago and I covered Michael Jordan and Phil Jackson. And then I went to the Bay Area and got to know the great Bill Walsh and covered the 49ers and I got to know closely the great Al Davis. You don't think I learned a lot of football along the trail as a reporter and a columnist that I can now bring to bear on a daily basis? I can recall, “Bill Walsh told me this once upon a time and Tom Landry always believed that this led to that.”
When you were in Dallas you wrote multiple books about the Cowboys, right? In one of them you talked about the fact that Troy Aikman, the quarterback, his teammates and coaches were saying or discussing rumors that he was gay. This is now an ongoing controversy, Troy Aikman's still upset with you. You now work at the network that Troy Aikman works at. Have you guys talked?
Have you read that book?
No, I've read the summary of the book.
Okay. If you will read that book, I will talk to you on the air about it.
Sure. I read Brian Curtis' piece, which was good.
You should read the book and then we'll have this discussion because I've been dumbfounded by the reactions to it from the start. It's been as misinterpreted a book as ever has been written.
So my only question is, have you talked to Troy AIkman and what's going to happen when you see him?
I'll talk to you about it if you'll read the book. I'll tell you everything.
Alright, so we'll table that, we'll come back. The Brian Curtis piece, it's in “The Wringer.”
Do you think Brian got that right? It seemed to be that it was pretty thorough.
He was on the right track.
Yeah, okay. So generally, I trust Brian Curtis.
He read the book when it came out in '95. He was recalling it. I don't think he had refreshed himself.
But you think he was mostly there.
He was going down the right path.
So we'll leave that there. You're going to go through football this year. What do you imagine the biggest storyline is going to be this fall?
I'm hoping it's my Dallas Cowboys. I was born and raised a Dallas Cowboy fan, not born because they weren't born until 1960 and I was 9. But I grew up in that tradition and they're a big part of our show because people love or hate that team in the ways they love and hate no other team in existence. Everybody has an opinion about the Cowboys, they now have a growing controversial quarterback because Tony Romo was out but might come back fairly quickly.
You like his replacement?
I like his replacement a lot. How could you not?
And football is what you're most animated about?
No. No, I wouldn't say that. It's a tie between football and NBA. I sort of grew up in the NBA because my Dallas days, they got a team just as I arrived in Dallas, the Mavericks. They were born in 1980, I got there in '79. So I'm steeped in the NBA and I'm very passionate about it. And I love it equally with the NFL. I used to love baseball. I grew up a huge baseball fan, I'm sure a lot of people did — my generation. But the point was that over time America has fallen out of love with baseball, so we don't do as much baseball as we used to.
So America can fall out of love with a sport, it's fallen out of love with baseball. Boxing used to be a big mainstream sport, isn't anymore.
Although we're hot with Floyd Mayweather, that's always a hot topic for us.
There's an ongoing discussion about health, risk and football, and it waxes and wanes depending on what happens on the field, what's happening off the field. Can you imagine America sort of moving away from football?
No, you think we're here, we're locked in. Regardless of the damage to the players and what we know about it, what's going on, we're willing to accept that.
I'm certainly sympathetic to all of the above. I have a whole lot of friends who played pro football who I keep in touch with who are not in the media business and they all have various knees and shoulders and some of them have head. Most of them are okay in that regard. And where I don’t have sympathy is that no one held a gun to their head to play football. Maybe now because they've been better educated, some are choosing, “I’m out.” But they could choose it before college to say, “I'm out.” They could be a gifted high school player who says, “I just don't want to risk it in college football.” As you well know, much fame and fortune is down the road if you're willing to risk your body and especially your head to play pro football. And if you choose to take that risk, then I lose sympathy for you because it's a great sport, it's a lot of fun, it can be incredibly dangerous as we all know, and that's part of our fascination with the sport of football. So I accept it for what it is, I think they've done the best that they can to clean it up and make it as safe as possible, but in the end you have incredibly gifted 250 to 300 pound men, 350 pound men, running headlong at faster and faster speeds.
Right, they get bigger, they get faster.
They do. And the injuries can get worse. But the helmets have gotten a whole lot better and yet if you're going to play, it's not if you get hurt, it's going to be when and how badly.
Right, so there's the issue for the players and the question is like as a sport, as a commercial operation, are advertisers and ultimately viewers going to be comfortable with that. And you think yes, this is something we want to watch and we're going to keep watching.
It's like the Yahoo poll that was taken the other day about the Colin Kaepernick fallout, protest. I was pro Kaepernick. I think there were 1,200 respondents to the poll. And 44 percent said, “If the protests continue, we will stop watching the National Football League.” And that was the one part of that poll that I said, “Stop it! No you won't.” You'll say you will now, but they could protest every anthem, every game, you'll still watch pro football, I'm sorry.
This is great. Thanks for your time. I hope you'd enjoyed talking, I know I enjoyed listening.
This article originally appeared on Recode.net.