There is a school of thought—how widely credited I don’t know, but it exists—that says a mathematician should, in addition to her regular studies, always be working on an unsolvable problem. So, like a dog chasing a car, but if the dog were doing it in the knowledge that it could never catch the car being chased, and with the conscious goal in mind of getting faster.
Another way of saying this, if admittedly one a little more like a bumper sticker or Sting lyric, is that the purpose of any journey is less the destination than the journey itself. Following sports is like this: it is its own reward, and anyway the following—not catching—is the thing. It is the unsolvable problem that we work on, for whatever reasons we work on it.
This is the concept that ESPN has so skillfully monetized—they recognize and abet that constant pursuit, throwing brainless money after good and making hundreds of millions of dollars off it in the process, without advancing the understanding of the games, or aiming to do so, in any real sort of way. The volume, in terms of content and in terms of sound, is the thing. It's not unlike Robert Moses swaddling New York City with new highway after new highway, sure that the next one would finally relieve traffic and instead only creating more of it, while also creating a constriction so inflexible and vast that it still stands today.
There's no real way to measure this sort of constriction with regards to ESPN, although Deadspin's Tebow-counting this season came fairly close, but it certainly seems as if the conversations on ESPN are, as a whole, getting dumber. They certainly are not going anywhere. Skip Bayless, it seems, is as unloved and unlovable and ineffective and just awful as the Cross Bronx Expressway, and just as permanent.
Given the gobs of money that this business model makes, and how effective its culture war/politics analogue has been at FOX News, it was perhaps inevitable that Rupert Murdoch would seek to challenge it, as he will with a new Fox-branded all-sports network. This could well be a good thing; some competition is a good thing, and it's not impossible that the pressure could push the quality of the discourse upwards. As the Nets prove to their sold-out crowds in Brooklyn while the Knicks still fill the house at MSG, demand is flexible, and it’s obvious. Anyway, sports fans don’t love ESPN because it’s ESPN; they love it because sports is their unsolvable problem, and ESPN is ostensibly the lab where they’re working on it.
The issue being that ESPN isn’t full of sports scientists; it’s more of a cult.
Last week, Seattle Seahawks cornerback Richard Sherman refused to engage in the corporate behemoth’s groupthink in a sort-of-debate with Skip Bayless. The ensuing dustup—over which was more important, Sherman’s 8 interceptions, or what he thought about them?—was loud and embarrassing and dumb, but finally just a matter of chickens and eggs. Sports and sports talk are inextricable. All Bayless and Sherman were doing were arguing which came first.
It seems, if only because he was the person in the debate not handicapped by being Skip Bayless, as if Sherman "won." But that's not quite it: for all the ways that it looks easy, what Bayless does is hard. Shame is a powerful emotion, and a constant one; if we presume that Bayless is capable of feeling it, then we can say that he has repressed his shame into a diamond that he has effectively hidden on a beach, a diamond that each guest gets approximately three minutes to look for, but usually chooses not to. Sherman wasn't playing. Sherman’s response to every question can basically be reduced to, “Fuck you, I’m looking for that diamond.” Not everyone will want to do this, but it made for compelling, viral television—others may take up the search. Given the fanfare of Sherman’s appearance, it seems inevitable.
This would mean more and more athletes and guests getting in on taunting Bayless into letting out enough rope to hang himself. The future, here, would be less a parade of loud, show-killing football-themed Jon-Stewart-on-'Crossfire' moments, and more like any workaday Don Imus morning show, saved from bigoted self-immolation each day ultimately only by the demands of advertisers and good fortune and whatever residual professionalism in Imus that keeps him from just complaining about poor people and black people all day. Bayless, who is only sort of good at his very bad job, does not seem to be this sort of pro. As he Skip challenged more and more often, those six minutes between commercials will get longer and longer, and he’ll eventually put his foot far enough into his mouth to choke on it, a la Jimmy the Greek or the Inside the NFL version of Rush Limbaugh. This won't necessarily be fun to watch, but it isn't fun to watch now.
Bill Simmons, ESPN’s spiritual leader, implored people just to turn off the television during the Sherman/Bayless debate, before doubling back and calling the incident embarrassing for everyone. If anything, lets Bayless off the hook by implicating Sherman in the travesty that is ESPN2's First Take. Maybe it’s coincidence that as political fervor in this country has tilted to the left, Big Sports have been happy to retreat in the other direction; maybe sports is the last place where a sort of placid, just-barely-unspoken bigotry is allowed. What was Richard Sherman’s crime, exactly? What Sherman did on Bayless’ program and occasionally writes on Twitter—be a brash asshole, basically—is what Bayless does to everyone, every day. Both are paid to antagonize. Sherman is paid to antagonize wide receivers, and occasionally catch balls thrown to them. Sherman's First Take appearance wasn’t strictly part of that job, but it wasn't a misstep. It was community service. It was introducing math – 8 interceptions – into an equation that was not designed to have an answer. It made Skip’s problem solvable. And that, for Skip Bayless, must be a frightening thing.
Skip Bayless is perfect in sports media because he’s fine with explaining the unexplainable, without pausing to catch his breath; he uses flubby math to solve unsolvable problems daily. Whether he actually believes he is giving satisfactory answers or not, the fact of the matter is that he produces a lot of (awful, but) answers. It helps him, immeasurably, that he is full of shit, math that can’t be conjured. If his job must exist, it can't have a thinker in it. You want a pawn, or a bishop, or a rook: predictable movements along predictable lines. It’s hard to learn and harder still to accept new things, which is why so much time is spent wasted per annum decrying the ‘new’ order; Bayless gets around this by refusing to know much of anything, while at the same time knowing everything.
The mistake we make is thinking that Skip Bayless is anything more than a service employee. He scoops meatloaf on your school lunch tray, but he has the chin and hair do it on camera. He’s in this for the long haul, until his inevitable public flameout, where he says is plain English that which he’s been saying in code for years.
Every night, he goes out there and does the equivalent of solving the Junior Jumble and pretending he’s a king for it; he's stuffing those boxes with gibberish, though, and one day he'll look down to see that he’s written a very bad word. Sponsors will jump, ESPN will flinch, he’ll slink away and pop up somewhere else, possibly even this new Fox thingamjig. There will be work for him. Provoking athletes is the only thing at which he’s good, and in this case he did it in advance with his bluster on previous shows, irking Sherman to the point the cornerback blasted him before Skip even got a chance to talk. A stalemate was reached in their argument, but a stalemate is a loss for Skip, in that both sides of the 'argument' are acknowledged, and one position plus one position equals two positions, both equally valid. For Skip to survive, one plus one has to equal one. Time will tell if he's been solved for.