By Ben Taylor
Any red-blooded American who can possibly tolerate Skip Bayless’ man-crush on the unproven and unskilled Tim Tebow or Stephen A. Smith’s over-the-top refutations of Skip’s Tebow-related nonsense — just to tolerate Mr. Smith’s self-righteous and SNL-mockery worth bombastic attempt at a persona — knows that ESPN’s “First Take” is more often than not a mock morning entertainment show that occasionally focuses on actual issues in sports.
The Lakers? A sub .500 team no one outside of L.A. care the least bit about. Tim Tebow? Who? In a “bad quarterback” fantasy league, I’d take JaMarcus Russell ahead of Tebow. The Jets? At best rivals of the Dolphins for 5-11, though that might be a stretch. LeBron? Yeah he’s good. Is he Michael? No, but who cares? Different era, different positions, does not matter. Danica? Rooting for her to win eventually, but ultimately, pretty irrelevant.
“First Take” airs twice consecutively Monday through Friday, usually with the second hour weakly recapitulating the first. The draw — and admittedly, I watch it most days of the week — consists of Skip Bayless referring to his career as a journalist (with Stephen A. Smith refuting him on the same basis); and of Smith referring to his personal relationship with a particular player or executive. As SNL so perfectly pillories, it’s not relevant if Smith has personal relationships with said individuals; he’s just like the guy at your frat house who knows senators and governors and to whom the only rational response is to chuckle at. No one takes Smith seriously. He’s a great performer, but after learning he’s close friends with LeBron, Kobe, K-Durant, Paul Pierce, Pat Riley (name an NBA celebrity from the last twenty years), you figure out his shtick is being loud and name-dropping.
Now the former doesn’t bother me; Stephen A. Smith is genuinely entertaining when he’s not trying to pretend he knows anything about sports. I actually like Skip Bayless; at least he’s willing to take “controversial” positions for the sake of taking them. Then again, I did that as the editor of my high school newspaper. It didn’t make me wise or cool then and Bayless, it doesn’t make you either now. Were I an ESPN executive, I’d fire you on the spot for even suggesting that Tim Tebow is an NFL quarterback. Your consistent blathering about his NFL readiness is an insult to you, your network, any advertisers who pay to listen to your nonsense and especially to anyone tuning into your program. The minute I hear “Tebow,” I change the channel. Give it up already and try harder to be a pretend journalist.
Most egregiously, Bayless and Smith attempted to debate a recently about which neither really had much of a clue — whether it’s “okay” for an NFL executive to inquire at the combine if a player is gay. I watched carefully both of their responses; and while I sort of get Smith’s argument that an NFL GM must look at the entire team composition in order to gauge whether or not an openly gay football player would disrupt or make uncomfortable homophobic teammates, it just rings hollow. Replace “gay” with “black” and the same argument can be made against Jackie Robinson. The absurd meme on the right that gay men are somehow predatory and looking to ambush straight athletes in the shower room is propagated by organizations seeking to demonize any and every LGBT individual because a document that recommends death for eating lobster says the same about LGBT individuals. It’s beyond laughable. I would expect a deeper examination of reality from someone who purports to be a journalist.
My particular problem with Smith and Bayless is their lack of consideration of what exactly makes it acceptable to inquire about a potential draftee’s sexual orientation (not preference gents; we don’t choose who we are) and what that would mean to potential gay athletes. As both hosts rightly note, there are no openly LGBT athletes in men’s or women’s professional sports. Ask yourself, if athletes are asked about something as personal as their orientation in what amounts to their tryout for a professional league — and knowing that that question alone betrays a bigotry formerly reserved for athletes of a certain skin color — why on earth would they tell the truth?
Think of yourself as a projected mid-first-round running back lined up for a great deal of guaranteed money, endorsements, etc. And let’s say you have a long-term boyfriend with whom you’re deeply in love. The sort of guy you could see yourself spending a life with, and yet, in your NFL interview you’re asked about your sexual orientation. You’re not naïve; you know what the club considers the most marketable answer. What do you do? Granted, that’s a hypothetical, but how many times does it need to come true before owners, front office staff, coaches and fellow players get to the point the rest of the country is rapidly moving toward — where as long as you can do your job at a high level, who cares about your personal life? I genuinely believe if Adrian Peterson were gay (and I’m in no way implying I know anything about his sexuality, just taking the reigning MVP as an example), the story would be about his sexuality rather than the ridiculous season he just produced. We only get over that, Smith and Bayless, when gender and sexuality stop being issues. You can lead on this. Why don’t you?
Athletes are respected and paid for their prowess on the field. Why on earth would anyone (but someone afraid to acknowledge that whomever they choose to love or sleep with based on the person they are) argue otherwise? Sorry Smith, you know better than to believe that the “locker room disruption” argument is at best a straw man, and a pretty flimsy one at that. It’s 2013, gay people exist, we always have, we’re in locker rooms and always have been. Why coddle players who choose to live in a segregationist era? It’s that Smith; skin color may be more apparent at first glance, but sexual orientation at its core is the same thing — an essential and irreplaceable part of a human being, whether she or he is an athlete or a janitor.
Listen, I enjoy your show, Smith and Bayless. I never miss it unless I have to. But do yourselves and sports journalism a tremendous favor by saying publicly “an openly gay athlete would be an historic moment and one worth celebrating.”