Skip Bayless, the Mad Monk of ESPN
Credit: Photograph by Andrew Hetherington
Fifty weeks a year, Bayless camps Sunday through Thursday in a cluttered hotel room just outside Bristol, sharing the space with an old exercise bike and the DVR on which he tapes games. He makes the five-minute drive to work in a humdrum Chrysler that's the dog on the lot at ESPN, parked beside brute utes, hot-wheeled Carreras, and the candy-colored Lambos of retired stars. He lives, in short, like a traveling monk with a touch of sports Asperger's, though he earns a salary in the high six figures from a network eager to lock him up for years.

But put him in front of a camera and Bayless amplifies in an eyeblink. His voice booms out, launched like a Taser at Smith. The morning after LeBron clanked a pair of late free throws in a second-round defeat to Indiana, Bayless starts off in full messianic fervor, assailing the sins of the "false MVP" and pinning the loss solely on James. This raises the hackles of the excitable Smith. Bayless listens to Smith gabble about which star choked the most, and then mockingly taps his watch and cuts in. "Yes, but what we've seen is LeBron wave to him and say, 'You do it – I'll stand over here!' We have an MVP who doesn't want the ball and is afraid to take the last shot!"

And so it goes, with minor variations, for 35 minutes without a break. This is heresy, of course: Television lives to cram in ads, but 'First Take' treats its opener with the bated breath of the storm-the-beach scene in 'Saving Private Ryan'. This may account for its sky-high "retention rate" – the average length of time that people stay tuned in before clicking away during commercials – but fails to explain why hundreds of thousands of men are watching a high school food fight at 10 a.m.

Smith and Bayless believe they speak the hard truth – "We're as raw as it comes; if it's relevant, we go there strong," says Smith – but there's nothing hard or truthy here. Their network, which pays the NFL $2 billion a year for the right to air 'Monday Night Football', has largely become the butler to that outfit and breaks its back dancing attendance. It spends two hours a day in June, the thick of football's off-season, pumping the dry-well dust of mini-camps, so if you've tuned in to see Bayless scorch Roger Goodell for his logrolling on NFL brain woes, or are waiting for Smith to unburden himself on the farce that is student athletics, you've got the wrong show and channel.

So, no, Smith and Bayless aren't Huntley and Brinkley, but taken in small doses, they go down easy. A sample exchange, regarding the NBA playoffs: Smith (shaking his head): Ah, Skip – so little time, so much to teach you about the postseason.

Bayless: Oh, right, I forgot – you invented the game of basketball, didn't you, Stephen Naismith. Which is why you broke speed records jumping off your Thunder and onto my San Antonio Spurs! 

Smith, who prefers to watch games from courtside so he can chat up players before and after, usually goes on-air without index cards and seems to have done his prep in the cab ride over. Bayless, on the other hand, starts the previous evening and brings a stack of notes to the set. "The debate is often won the night before, beginning with the 6 p.m. SportsCenter," he says. "After that I watch the games and comb box scores for stats, and get up at 5 a.m. and watch a loop of the 2 a.m. SportsCenter." Childless, divorced, and void of outside interests, Bayless' one passion is protecting his record in debates. "I've never lost an argument and don't intend to start, though I'd be happy if our audience thinks Stephen won a day's debate."

Smith chortled when told this, saying Bayless "is beyond hope; he's just wired different from you and me. Don't get me wrong, I'm life-and-death too, but unlike him, I have a life to fall back on." Paige, Bayless' first foe, recalled a claws-out competitor who lived on "Red Bull, broccoli, and Ambien," rehearsed his punch lines in a corner downstage, and showed up to predawn production meetings with 10 fully formed subjects on a legal pad, "whereas I'd walk in with two words on a Post-it, having not been to sleep for 24 hours." At one meeting, the producers proposed a topic: Would you give up sex for a year if it improved your golf game? "I said, 'Sure, why not; I'll make up for it the next year,'" says Paige. "Skip looks at me and says, apropos of nothing, 'I've had more sex than all you people combined.' I said, 'Bayless, you're full of shit, how could you possibly know that?' But sure enough, he goes and says it on-air – 'I've had more sex than Woody Paige' – and that was about as much as I could take. I jumped out of my chair, knocked him to the floor, and we both rolled around on national television. I'll tell you, though: That guy is really strong."

Bayless admits to saying something of the sort but denies that a hockey match broke out (screaming match was more like it). "Woody's a good friend, but he likes to improve his stories; it's part of his shtick," he says. What can't be denied is the provocation, and more's the pity. Bayless the writer was a whip-smart observer with that rarest thing in sports: an authentic voice. Even on radio, he had the time and space to argue his counterwise views. But television seems to have taken that voice and amped it to a carny's blare, upping the volume and dialing down heart, the soulfulness that made him so compelling. Among the things he's traded in the upgrade to fame is the precept they taught him in church: that human beings change, are bettered by failure, made whole for being torn up. LeBron, for instance, is no longer the kid who fashioned himself the next Jordan. After years of being scourged for his flameouts and ego, he's grown into a heedful, wised-up man who's raised his game and spirit to become a champion. Bashing that spirit, as Bayless does daily, is an insult to all of us and not just James, because it denies the very things we most aspire to: to be stalwart in failure, toughened by insult, rebuilt in our own true image. No one should know that better than Bayless, who heard God tell him, at an early age, that he had a purpose for him. Surely that purpose wasn't to pile onto people who've done nothing to earn his spite, and who, in the case of James, do more to help kids than Michael Jordan's done in his selfish life. Winning isn't the only thing, to half-quote Lombardi; there's that other thing called grace that's worth pursuing.