Last week, a heated altercation broke out on ESPN2’s “First Take” between former NBA standout Jalen Rose and longtime sports analyst Skip Bayless. At the crux of the debate was whether professional analysts who were inferior athletes—many of whom did not play beyond the high-school level—have the right to criticize professional players. Rose questioned Bayless’s eagerness to insult NBA stars, citing the journalist’s lackluster high school career.
The Twittersphere immediately lit up, and Rose and Bayless became Trending Topics. Popular opinion seemed to favor Rose, but I suspect that it’s only because Rose is the more likable of the two.
For those who don’t know, Skip Bayless is obnoxious. He’s a controversial loudmouth who loves to argue unpopular positions. And he’s been that way for most of his career—first as a features writer for the Los Angeles Times, where his work was nearly investigative journalism, then as an award-winning columnist at the Chicago Tribune and San Jose Mercury News. For the past five years, Bayless has worked at ESPN, calling it like he sees it, even when nobody else agrees with him.
If you pay any attention to sports at all, Skip Bayless has made an outrageous claim with which you’d wholeheartedly disagree. So it comes as no surprise that sports fans would side with Jalen Rose on this issue. But they’re wrong.
The belief that drives Jalen Rose’s argument is that if you haven’t played in the pros, you can’t understand the game—the pressures, the slumps, the quality of one’s opponents, the distractions. And therefore, it’s unfair to criticize. That argument disintegrates under scrutiny. It ignores the notion that we are intellectual beings, and that the foundation for our assertions must not always be experiential.
I’m a horrible pool player. I can see the shot every time, but can never make it. I can watch someone shooting billiards and, because I understand geometry and physics, can explain with precision how the next move should transpire. Analysis has nothing at all to do with athletic ability. It’s like comparing horseshoes and air conditioners. And JalenRose, having done both, should understand this.
Skip Bayless understands sports, just as Jim Rome, Bob Costas, and Jim Gray understand sports. None of them are world-class athletes. But that doesn’t detract from their ability to provide insight into the games they cover.
Bobby Knight, the legendary college basketball coach, was little more than a bench-warmer at Ohio State. It didn’t stop him from racking up 902 wins as a coach. Lou Holtz, the formidable college football coach, was a mediocre college linebacker atKentState—5’10” and 150 pounds, he was scrawny. Still, he racked up 249 wins in his coaching career, and does a pretty good job as a commentator these days. These guys couldn’t really play the game, but they could sure tell you how it was supposed to be played.
So, if Skip Bayless thinks that Kwame Brown is an overrated scrub, should he bite his tongue? Kwame would kill Skip in a game of one-on-one. But by league standards, Kwame—the 2001 number one draft pick—has underperformed at every turn. And Bayless, an analyst, has every right to call him on it, whether it hurts Brown’s feelings or not.
Skip Bayless is a broadcaster, and he knows what drives ratings. He understands the power of hyperbole, and knows that outlandish assertions and feverish debates captivate viewers. In short, he understands the game that he’s paid to play. And he’s very, very good at it.
Originally printed in “Pulse,” 04/19/2012.
© Damien Willis, 2012. All rights reserved.