Opinion | What America Could Learn From ‘Skip and Shannon: Undisputed’

As a self-conscious recusant from the so-called prestige TV revolution, I take a certain knowing delight in telling people that the only show — broadcast or streaming — that I watch is “Skip and Shannon: Undisputed,” a daily morning talk program on FS1, Fox’s national sports channel.

“Undisputed” is not a name to conjure in the world of middlebrow television criticism. But for the 200,000 or so Americans who tune in each morning at 9:30 (6:30 in the Los Angeles studio where it is recorded), watching Skip Bayless and Shannon Sharpe debate sports — and, occasionally, with a candor rarely found in other forums, politics — is almost as important as drinking coffee.

While no official announcement has been made about the show’s long-term future, Mr. Sharpe, one of the show’s two main hosts along with its current moderator, Jennifer Hale, announced that he was leaving the program on last Tuesday’s episode. The end of the current pairing on “Undisputed” will mean the end of my morning routine as I know it, but I would be only half joking if I said that it will also be a loss for American culture.

Among the many charms of “Undisputed” was its reminder of what television once was, an essentially ephemeral medium with a reassuring throwaway quality. But another part of the show’s appeal, I suspect, is that, intentionally or otherwise, it has become a kind of fossil record of American politics during the last seven years.

It was almost certainly the only program on television where you could watch a man wearing a goat mask and his navy-blazer-wearing debate partner screaming about whether LeBron James or Michael Jordan is the greatest basketball player ever, get up during a commercial break and return to find a thoughtful discussion of the history of racism in the N.F.L.

“Undisputed” began in 2016. It pitted Mr. Bayless, a journalist who helped popularize the daytime sports talk format on ESPN with a show called “First Take,” against Mr. Sharpe, a Hall of Fame tight end who won two Super Bowls with the Denver Broncos and one with the Baltimore Ravens. (The audience for the show, like that for late-night talk shows nowadays, is much larger than its ratings suggest: Millions of viewers who never watch live enjoy whole segments uploaded to YouTube or shorter clips posted on social media, and there is a podcast version.) The lyrics of its theme song, performed by Lil Wayne, a fan of Mr. Bayless who has appeared frequently as a guest, provide an apt summary of the proceedings: “No mercy, no mercy, no mercy / And I won’t back down.”

Many sports shows are built around the concept of two hosts with divergent views. What set “Undisputed” apart is that the hosts were a true odd couple — a white cantankerous journalist and a Black superstar athlete — who nonetheless found a way to discuss everything from the longevity of the Lakers dynasty and the follies of the Cleveland Browns to the #MeToo movement, Covid lockdowns, illegal drugs, the rise of legal sports gambling and the protests and riots that followed the murder of George Floyd. It worked as television because the two men were willing to discuss these issues with an almost reckless lack of restraint, seemingly in ignorance of the self-censorship that pervades so much polite discourse.

In an early episode of the show in 2016, Lil Wayne appeared to discuss the national anthem protests led by Colin Kaepernick and other N.F.L. players. Citing his popularity among white teenagers, the rapper said that he had “never dealt with racism” and that he considered it a phenomenon that belonged to America’s past. This is not a perspective that has much cultural purchase on NPR or CNN, but it is shared by millions of Americans. Even for those who find it absurd, it has a kind of dialectical value: It is the beginning rather than the end of a conversation. That is the spirit in which Mr. Sharpe responded to it, saying that while his own experience as an African American growing up in rural Georgia had been very different, he was glad that Lil Wayne was being honest about his experiences.

Throughout their exchange, Mr. Bayless asked occasional questions but seemed mostly content to listen. A self-described “God and country guy,” Mr. Bayless is often considered a mouthpiece for older, tradition-minded sports fans, but his own views are somewhat less predictable. (In an interview he once referred to himself jokingly as a communist.) In a later segment of the show devoted to Ruth Bader Ginsburg’s opposition to Mr. Kaepernick’s protest (which the justice had called “dumb and disrespectful”), Mr. Bayless admitted that, like Justice Ginsberg, he was uncomfortable with kneeling during the anthem — but said that he had changed his mind after hearing the players’ reasoning.

A similar open-mindedness characterized the show’s handling of the George Floyd protests. In 2020, Drew Brees, then the quarterback of the New Orleans Saints, responded to the news of Mr. Floyd’s death by saying that he opposed protesting police brutality if doing so involved “disrespecting the flag” by kneeling during the national anthem. Mr. Sharpe suggested on air that Mr. Brees should retire from football, arguing that anyone so blithely insensitive could not be an effective leader in a locker room in which the majority of players were African American.

Mr. Brees responded by contacting Mr. Sharpe, and the two had a wide-ranging phone conversation about race and American history whose contents Mr. Sharpe later shared on air. This included Mr. Sharpe’s comment to Mr. Brees that given Mr. Brees’s charitable work in New Orleans after Hurricane Katrina, “no white quarterback in the history of the N.F.L. has had Black support like you got it,” which, in Mr. Sharpe’s view, had made Mr. Brees’s comments especially painful. Mr. Brees later made a public apology and even took a knee during the national anthem with his teammates. (Months later, when Mr. Brees announced his actual retirement, no reference was made on “Undisputed” to his earlier comments, and both hosts showered him with superlatives. It is difficult to imagine such graciousness in other media settings.)

Unlike popular podcasts such as “Pardon My Take,” which is essentially sports comedy, or TV shows such as “The Herd” on FS1, whose host Colin Cowherd aspires to disinterested analysis of sports, “Undisputed” was premised explicitly upon antagonism, in this case between its hosts. Even their ongoing bets, wagering cases of Diet Mountain Dew, and their elaborate visual jokes — Mr. Sharpe bringing a bottle of Hennessy and Black and Mild cigars to celebrate the Eagles beating the Patriots in Super Bowl LII or Mr. Bayless affectionately nuzzling a Cowboys jersey — were attempts at one-upmanship calculated to annoy one another.

This high-spirited raillery was very much a part of the appeal of “Undisputed” (there is a whole genre of YouTube video compilations of Mr. Sharpe’s agonized cries of “Skiiiiiiiiiiiip!”), but during the show’s long run it also led to occasional displays of genuine animosity. On one episode last year, for instance, Mr. Bayless accused his partner of envying Tom Brady’s longevity in the N.F.L. and made light of Mr. Sharpe’s own achievements as a player. Mr. Sharpe, who seemed astonished at the ad hominem nature of the argument, removed his glasses with a look of genuine woundedness. In another episode, a disagreement about the N.F.L.’s decision to postpone the conclusion of a Buffalo Bills game after a player collapsed on the field led to a similar altercation, in which Mr. Sharpe suggested his partner should remove a tweet he considered offensive and Mr. Bayless said that he would not do so because he had not changed his opinion. Such incidents were inevitable. Candor has its price.

When I first read reports earlier this month of Mr. Sharpe’s impending departure from the show, I felt dejected, as if a beloved relation had announced that he was going into exile abroad. While it is hard at present to say what motivated “Unc” (as fans have styled him) to leave, I, for one, hope that it is not resentment of his longtime debate partner, as some commentators have speculated. In the final segment of Tuesday’s episode Mr. Sharpe thanked Mr. Bayless — along with dozens of makeup artists, front desk staff, schedulers and security personnel — with tears in his eyes.

I too am grateful. In addition to showing me that the debate about whether Bill Belichick or Tom Brady contributed more to the Patriots’ six Super Bowl victories can never be settled, Mr. Sharpe and Mr. Bayless have taught me a great many other things in their heedless, unsophisticated way that I could not have learned from watching “Succession” or “The White Lotus”: that a stray remark, however churlish, need not mean a permanent asterisk next to a name, that forthright conversation begun from opposing premises can in fact lead to increased understanding, and that old-fashioned virtues such as forgiveness and liberality still have a place, alongside shouting and friendly wagers, in American life.

The Times is committed to publishing a diversity of letters to the editor. We’d like to hear what you think about this or any of our articles. Here are some tips. And here’s our email: [email protected].

Follow The New York Times Opinion section on Facebook, Twitter (@NYTopinion) and Instagram.

Matthew Walther (@matthewwalther) is a contributing Opinion writer for The New York Times. He is the editor of The Lamp, a Catholic literary journal, and a media fellow at the Institute for Human Ecology at the Catholic University of America.

Source: Read Full Article