Taking It Personal: The First Take Debate

It’s been said countless times that any time ESPN First Take is viewed, or at least mentioned, Skip Bayless wins. The most notorious hater in sports has made the morning program into the live, in-person manifestation of #TwitterSports; where rushing to be first or trying extra hard to be funny trumps actually learning something about the games we love. Truthfully, he’s the loudest carnival barker in the biggest circus there is, and he gets paid quite handsomely to draw a crowd to the show.

Yet, his latest moment of infamy has done something that is a rarity in the Bristol campus. It invited a somewhat coherent debate about the difference between objective analysis and disrespectful opinions presented as fact.

The idea that Jalen Rose gave Bayless a dose of his own medicine was equally celebrated as it was condemned, although the larger point he tried to make - how Bayless and others cross the line - may have been missed.

Though most won’t admit it, a wide majority of us who have gone into locker rooms, spoke with scouts and executives, shared insights with fellow media members, and broadcasted our thoughts to the world have never played sports at a significantly competitive level. Yet, for whatever reasons – an unbridled passion for the games, an addiction to the written (or spoken) word or just having the hook-up – we’re in the business in order to attempt to provide deeper understanding of the games we love.

Ideally, we provide diversity in our insights; mixing up the bird’s eye view of how a sport is to be played with the in-the-trenches reality in which the players live in from game to game. Interwoven into the narrative are conversations with the stewards of these games; owners, executives and coaches that create the framework of a sport with their finances and experience.

Where many in the business do their best to just stick with the facts and/or reveal news based on established relationships, there are some who make their mark with some sort of angle. There are the curmudgeons who opine about how the new generation couldn’t compete with the old. We have the obnoxiously loud radio show hosts who believe that screaming over their audience proves some sort of superior knowledge. And of course, we can’t forget the television announcers that keep their soapboxes near when a player decides to be a little different from the ideal.

So when Rose attempted to break the typical player-turned-analyst mold by calling out Bayless, it had less to do with stating that the former newspaper man apparently lied about a not-so-stellar high school basketball career. It had more to do with people like him making their analyses personal.

Sports exist, as is, in part because of the irrationality of our emotions. Consider the money and time invested from all sides; it’s not easy being a wallflower if you’ve worked a lifetime to make it as a player, support it as a family member, watch it as a fan, or cover it in the media. Unlike other forms of entertainment where the creative process is largely hidden from public view, everyone with at least a passing interest knows the rules to these games. We can compare players and performances because we all see these athletes rise and fall in order to succeed one play at a time.

When we can’t understand how someone fails at making the shot, stopping the goal or taking a swing, we tend to go overboard in our assessments by taking some sort of personal offense. Tim Tebow’s faith doesn’t save him from being a mediocre quarterback. Chris Bosh’s sexuality gets assailed because… well, who knows. “KWA-MAY” Brown is a freeloading bum because he’s paid for being very tall, if not very good compared to other players.

And it’s that very irrationality which pulls in the audience during games, and creates demand for commentary at all other times.

It goes to the larger point that friend of TSFJ, Jonathan Tillman (@thetillshow) made about the blurred line between analysis and opinion:

“Jalen’s point about the media is legit, but the entertainment is what pulls in casual fans. There’s a line between reporting performance and being disrespectful. Though I don’t know where the line is, I think we know disrespect when we see/hear/read it.” - Till

When you strip the name-dropping screaming of Stephen A. Smith, the staunch defensiveness of Bayless, and the frustrations of Rose, there was a meaningful conversation about the complexities of having behind-the-scenes access to the some of the world’s most visible people. Yet, the one indisputable point was made by Smith as he reminded us that this debate has been going on forever, with no end in sight.

Perhaps just the way we like it.

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