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Getting Schooled in Sports Journalism

Embrace debate philosophy has made ‘First Take’ a Jerry Springer-style presentation of sports

Throughout the course of history, there have been some truly memorable debates. In 1858, there were seven between Abraham Lincoln and Stephen A. Douglas in advance of the Illinois senate election. Two years later, the Oxford evolution debate brought into question the findings of Charles Darwin. These seminal exchanges of ideas and views remain examples of what can happen when men of substance gather to find higher truths – or at least engage in lively discussion in search of them.

Here’s hoping future generations will not reference ESPN’s “First Take” as a worthy successor to its famous ancestors. Now airing twice daily, the better to take advantage of the program’s swelling popularity, “First Take” has become a poor imitation of the format, despite the “embrace debate” tagline the show favors. Instead of encouraging a somewhat intelligent discourse, “First Take” relies on a baser model that panders to viewers’ lower sensibilities and incites, rather than informs.

The most egregious version of this came last Friday, when “First Take” regular Skip Bayless engaged in a throwdown with Seattle Seahawks cornerback Richard Sherman. Sherman, who was none too happy with Bayless’ assertion that he was inferior to Jets CB Darrelle Revis, was belligerent from the start and was clearly on the program only in an attempt to humiliate Bayless. Neither man came off as professional, and the low point, at least from my perspective, came when Sherman said, “I’m better at life than you.” The whole exchange was so uncomfortable that ESPN’s Bill Simmons, recently named the Most Powerful Person in Sports Media by Sports Illustrated, described it as “embarrassing.”

It was worse than that. By appealing to the lowest-common-denominator set, ESPN is creating a climate in which many people believe debate is less an educated exchange and more a shoutfest, during which the loudest, most aggressive voice wins. Certainly, arguing is an art that calls upon many different skills, and passivity is not one that leads to success. But “First Take” doesn’t follow that path. Instead, it rewards theatrics, ad-hominum attacks and nastier-is-better put-downs.

Don’t get me wrong; I’m not saying ESPN is responsible for educating America on how to exchange ideas reasonably. What I’m saying is that as the world of sports mutates from one in which information is paramount, and trenchant analysis wins the day, “First Take” is presenting a Jerry Springer-style view of sports. All that’s missing are beefy bodyguards in the wings, ready to break up fights.

The goal on “First Take” is antagonism, and it’s hard to believe the combatants are truly that invested in their opinions. More than likely, they take sides in advance of the program’s airing, the better to foster a sense of confrontation. Do Bayless and Stephen A. Smith really disagree on everything? Unlikely. I have appeared on these “debate” shows before, and pre-production meetings featured compromises on various points, the better to present opposing viewpoints. If the two participants find that they agree on a topic, one will often volunteer to take the other side, the better to create coveted friction.

There was a time when Bayless was a decorated newspaper columnist. The Vanderbilt grad is quite intelligent, and his written work demonstrated that. While he isn’t the first person to make the jump from print to TV, he has embraced the format so much that it’s hard for many to remember when he was making erudite, strident arguments about sporting issues. Smith, the 21st century Howard Cosell, is his perfect foil, because though he never runs from a fight, Smith is more content to espouse his views in a somewhat lighter fashion. One gets the impression he understands the ludicrous nature of “First Take” and chooses to participate from a sporting standpoint, while Bayless is hidebound to create a contrarian persona that will put him in the national spotlight.

Friday’s Sherman-Bayless confrontation became an immediate hit on the Internet and social media. It was heralded as a must-see event that no doubt made the “First Take” producers quite happy. When you are not exactly seeking higher ground, moments like this are great successes, even if they are labeled as embarrassing by more sensible minds. The more eyeballs that come to the party, the better.

That’s the real danger here. If “First Take” continues to grow, it’s almost guaranteed that imitators will sprout up, continuing the downward spiral away from an emphasis on intelligent discussion and favoring those who advance their agendas through less refined methods. Credit ESPN with creating a program that has gained popularity, but be careful not to laud the end result. At a time when we are struggling to provide examples of legitimate discourse, “First Take” is hampering that pursuit. We can’t expect Lincoln and Douglas, but it’s not unreasonable to demand something a little more substantive than what we are getting.

Michael Bradley is a writer, broadcaster and teacher headquartered in suburban Philadelphia. His written work has appeared in Sporting News, ESPN the Magazine, Athlon Sports, Hoop and Slam, among others. He is a host on 97.5 the Fanatic in Philadelphia and contributes analysis for Yahoo! Sports Radio and Sirius Mad Dog Radio. He appears on CSNPhilly.com, writes a weekly column on Philadelphia Magazine’s “Philly Post” and has authored 26 books. He teaches sports journalism at Saint Joseph’s, Villanova and Neumann Universities.

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