Is Skip Bayless for real?

ESPN host has become one of TV's most scrutinized and polarizing characters

IAVA 7th Annual Heroes Gala

Skip Bayless attends IAVA 7th Annual Heroes Gala at Cipriani 42nd Street on November 12, 2013 in New York City. (Michael Loccisano / Getty Photo / November 12, 2013)

You can call Skip Bayless many things, and people definitely do. Yet only one knock gets him truly upset: the notion that he is less than genuine on ESPN's "First Take."

Multiple critics contend his often controversial views are more for show than based on true conviction.

"They're wrong. They're all wrong," Bayless said in an interview in November.

Yes, but that's what people say about you.

"Then they don't know me," Bayless said. "Whoever says that has no idea what they're talking about it."

OK, who is Skip Bayless?

Bayless, a Chicago Tribune columnist from 1998 through 2001, has emerged as one of the most scrutinized and polarizing characters in sports television. His smartest-guy-in-the-room style is panned by critics. Twitter is a social-media dartboard with Bayless' face on it. Last week, a tweet featured two pictures: Bayless and a horse's rear end.

Athletes bristle at his opinions. Before Sunday's postgame interview with Erin Andrews, Seahawks cornerback Richard Sherman had a memorable exchange with Bayless on "First Take," calling him an "ignorant, pompous, egotistical cretin."

After Bayless openly wondered why there never have been any PED suspicions about Frank Thomas, the new Hall of Famer told Jim Rome: "I would like to have a conversation with him because I walked the walk and talked the talk from day one."

Yet "First Take," where Bayless debates Stephen A. Smith, is a huge success. The show averaged 328,000 viewers daily in the 9-11 a.m. slot during the fourth quarter of 2013, an all-time show high for that period and a robust audience for a morning show airing on ESPN2.

Bayless also has nearly 1.3 million followers on Twitter.

Despite the supposed hatred for him, Bayless contends the show succeeds because it is the opposite of critics' allegations.

"It's 1,000 percent authentic," Bayless said. "If you follow our show, I defy you to show me something that I said that you thought was completely outlandish and that I said only for the sake of saying it. I'm not doing it for ratings because our audience is sophisticated and smart, and they will see right through that. They keep coming back because they know I believe what I believe."

Bayless' departure from the Tribune underscores that point. He says he loved working in Chicago, calling it "the most passionate sports town in the country." However, he found the situation intolerable when then-editor Ann Marie Lipinski decided that all columns, including his, should be contained on one page instead of starting on one page and continuing to another page. Limited to around 650 words, Bayless says he felt constrained by not having the option to go longer if the subject or his reporting warranted it. He tried the tighter approach but after "suffering emotionally about it," he told his bosses he couldn't work that way any longer and was leaving the paper, details Lipinski doesn't dispute.

The incident, Bayless says, demonstrates he won't compromise himself. Not for a job, and certainly not for a show.

"My career is my life and my passion," Bayless said. "It's not a job, it's my life. So I was able to (leave the Tribune) when the job no longer fit what I do best."

Bayless is obsessive about everything he does. He is 62 but looks much younger because of intense daily workouts. He lives in a hotel in Bristol, Conn., during the week because all he really needs is a television and computer to follow all the games he watches religiously every night.

Ultimately, Bayless says, the intense preparation is about winning every debate he has with Smith or anyone else on the panel.

"I have never lost a debate," Bayless said. "(At least) not in my mind."

Many viewers and critics strongly disagree. Bayless has been blasted for his excessive infatuation with Tim Tebow and his criticism of LeBron James that sometimes border on extreme, to cite a few.

Yet when it comes to criticism — and worse — that comes his way, Bayless inflates a Teflon shield. He seems almost surprised to hear that people say bad things about him.

"It doesn't bother me a bit," Bayless said. "Don't lose any sleep. I'm so comfortable in my skin because in my heart I know I put in the hours and I am a sports nut. That's what people can't understand. I watch games a little differently, maybe, than other people do, because I'm constantly asking myself why did that happen, what's really going on here?"

Bayless will continue to ask questions and fire his opinions. The point isn't whether people agree or disagree or even think he is crazy. It is that they listen.

Special contributor Ed Sherman writes at shermanreport.com. Follow him @Sherman_Report

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