Two weeks ago, Deadspin called ESPN’s First Take the “Golden Corral of inane sportschat.” This is neither a controversial statement nor an odd opinion. In fact, to the cognizant, forward-thinking sports fan, this the only accepted perspective you can have towards The Worldwide Leader’s most grating product in their long tradition of grating products. If you haven’t seen it, First Take is a sports “debate” show, which pits the wacky rotting corpse and controversial-statement machine Skip Bayless against the no-nonsense professional shouter Stephen A. Smith. It’s a concept harmless enough—the “two people arguing” format is nothing new—except Bayless and Smith take such ridiculous, self-serious stances on everything that you can’t help but get heart-burstingly upset at one or both of them, and the proles dumb enough to watch, tweet, complain, and argue about the show incessantly. And tune in next time, of course, which has made it one of ESPN’s most popular programs. The show is a concoction of rampant, flailing faux-controversy so cynically think-tanked, it’s surprising it didn’t catch on sooner. It is completely indefensible, boorish, brainless, redundant, and drenched in corporate musk.. First Take is practically unwatchable, and I think about that every day when I sit down to watch it.
My addiction to First Take certainly doesn’t fall in line with the person I consider myself to be. The term “clutch gene” has always seemed hilariously stupid to me, and the whole “yelling about sports” subgenre has been achieved in much more elegant ways with things like Pardon the Interruption and Around the Horn. I like smart analysis, considered opinions, I tell myself, not two assholes trying to be more gaping than one another. But without fail, every weekday I find myself consuming all 120 minutes of arguably the worst show in the world. It’s led to denial, embarrassment, and a fair share of existential crises. Even my girlfriend, whose sports vocabulary doesn’t go much farther than the name Jose Canseco was taken back by the relentless absurdity of what I was watching.
I wish I could say my enjoyment of the show is ironic. Sure, there’s something deeply hysterical about watching Bayless bloviate about how a 40-point game from Russell Westbrook is a sham, just like it’s funny to watch Glenn Beck cry if you’re a certain kind of smirking progressive. But once you commit upwards of 100 hours of your collective mornings to ESPN2, you’d be fooling yourself to say you’re just doing it for the lulz.
The thing that keeps me coming back the most is that First Take is barely about sports. Nobody watches for sports news (and if they do, may God have mercy on their souls), they come for Skip Bayless and Stephen A. Smith. They are two significant, you could even say “dynamic” personalities, who are essentially paid to have serious opinions about inconsequential subjects. About 75 percent of First Take’s content is centered around three easy targets: Tim Tebow (who Bayless loves and Smith hates), Russell Westbrook (who Smith loves and Bayless hates), and LeBron James (who Smith loves and Bayless hates to a near-legendary degree). The two of them believe in their own bullshit like fundamentalists believe in scripture, and that’s what makes their interactions great. It’s not about what the Miami Heat does, it’s about Stephen A. and Skip. It’s a show about a pair of hardened commentators with a knack for soliloquy overreacting to every story that comes across their desk, and enunciating every word they say like they’re Moses reading the Ten Commandments.
First Take is essentially the ESPN version of a soap opera—the ensnaring, filthy daytime trash that you can’t quite stay away from. Bayless and Smith harangue each other with such shameless ferocity it’s actually pretty fascinating. When LeBron dropped 40 on the Celtics in Game 6 of the Eastern Conference Finals, my first thought was, What can Skip possibly say to insult such a performance? and my second thought was, How loudly is Stephen A. going to shout? Right on cue, Bayless started spouting all sorts of abstract bullshit about “pressure” and “close-out games” and how Game 6 eliminations are somehow less potent than Game 7 eliminations. “Admitting you’re wrong” is not in the First Take playbook—if Stephen A. or Skip ran for president, neither could be accused of flip-flopping on anything.
After enough time, you start judging every sports-related thing through the lens of First Take. Millions of Americans will now watch Russell Westbrook because they want to know what Skip will say about him afterwards, not because he’s a great basketball player. This phenomenon reached its height back in the days of Tebowmania, when First Take would spend the entire week simultaneously christening and dismantling the mediocre but lucky Broncos quarterback. His games were little more than the undercard for the real competition—the Monday morning shouting match. It got to the point where I was obsessively refreshing their twitter feeds, just to get a preview of the duo’s increasingly puffed-up rhetoric. I couldn’t help myself. I felt dirty, sure, but also energized, almost like it was a fix.
I know I’m part of the problem. I know this side-picking, analysis-free, self-serious sports debate format is bad for the soul. There have been a few times when I’ve had to turn First Take off because all the yelling was making me feel physically ill. Despite the nausea and the yelling, First Take can occasionally verge on being something worthwhile. It reminds me how I used to feel about sports, before skepticism and maturity took over, back when it really felt like the guys throwing the ball around represented good and evil. As much as I’m an enlightened fan who knows that “clutch” numbers are BS and the leagues are run by heartless billionaires, I still have that instinct to ignore it all and insist a player I don’t like sucks. First Take taps right into that instinct, and man, is that a rush.