BRISTOL, Conn. The Chinese food deliveryman lights up when he sees Skip Bayless answer the door. I thought it was you, he says with a smile, handing over dinner.
Bayless is a regular customer. At his core, hes a man of routine, and at the beginning of each week, he orders five days worth of chicken and broccoli (no sauce), his nightly dinners. Every weekend he stops by the same Manhattan deli and buys five sandwiches to bring back to his weekday home in Connecticut, his daily lunch. Hes a health nut who exercises twice a day. Every Sunday morning is church, every Friday is date night and every evening in between is the same: chicken and broccoli and sports.
On this night, the games have already started. He has South Carolinas season opener on the big screen but will soon switch to the New England Patriots preseason finale a final audition for quarterback Tim Tebow, one of Bayless favorite topics and fire up the Vanderbilt game on his laptop, always watching two games simultaneously.
Ryan Mallet is terrible, he says at one point. That was a terrible throw. Tim Tebow is going to be the backup quarterback for the New England Patriots before all of this is over.
Bayless just may be the most polarizing figure in sports today. The co-host of ESPNs First Take, Bayless epitomizes the superheated, highly lucrative world of sports-talk television. It is a nascent arena that rewards shock and awe more than considered judgment, and Bayless is perfectly suited for it.
Hes insistent on everything, no matter how contrarian or seemingly outlandish: Tebow is a winner (the next Brett Favre), LeBron James is a choker (Hes Pippen more than hes Jordan) and everything is open to interpretation (Example: Im totally against taking America-born white players in the first round of the draft.).
Hes helped make First Take ESPN2s top-rated program, which last year averaged 350,000 viewers each weekday. Spurred by the shows popularity, ESPN and other sports networks have made on-air debate a programming staple.
Bayless has an argument holstered for any sports topic, all rooted in carefully crafted Bayless-ian logic that has inspired vitriol from locker rooms, critics and so many sports fans. Last spring basketball Hall of Famer Charles Barkley said, If I could get Skip Bayless in a room, youd need DNA to find out who it was. Seattle Seahawks cornerback Richard Sherman, during an appearance on First Take, called him an ignorant, pompous, egotistical cretin.
Responding to Bayless is easy. Understanding him isnt - his rough childhood, regimented lifestyle, fixed principles and unwavering sense of confidence that underlies it all. Hes created a reality in which hes always right, and his narrative is always gospel.
Bayless is stoic as he watches football and waits for Tebow to come in off the bench. He occasionally checks email, but on this night he shuns Twitter. He has more than 1.1 million followers but mostly avoids reading the feedback there. On Twitter, the nice ones ask him to kill himself; the nasty ones say they'll help him do it. Its like the Wild West, he says. Every other response is a death threat.
Those who know Bayless best say that its impossible to understand him based strictly on his animated, self-assured TV performances.
Hes totally different in person, says Craig Humphreys, a close friend for nearly 50 years.
So what is real? Thats the question that seems to dog Bayless. He swears, from the bottom of my soul and my heart, that hes not playing a character and hes not arguing for the sake of arguing. That would be against my constitution, against my religion, against who I am, he says.
People dont know who he is, Bayless concedes, and cant fathom how much hes sacrificed for this job, how hes devoted every waking hour to winning made-for-TV sports debates. His daily routine is split between exercise hes 62 years old but has the body of a man half his age and work. Hes divorced and childless and sees his good friends only once or twice a year. No regrets, he says.
Those who work closely with Bayless dont fully understand the animosity. Theyve never seen a more tireless worker, someone who takes his job as seriously, someone more invested in winning an argument.
Guests are in for a rude awakening, too. The hip-hop star T.I. has been on the show a couple of times. To him, Bayless always seemed too eager to scold T.I.s favorite players and teams. It wasnt until I met him that I saw how much work he puts into it, T.I. says.
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