The time Skip Bayless demanded games five days after 9/11

Skip Bayless isn't the only person who refuses to see the humanity of the athletes he covers, but he is one of the most prominent and a column from 2001 shows how little the man has changed.

Skip Bayless expressed disbelief that he would not be provided the entertainment to which he felt entitled.

The athletes, which he purportedly covers, were not performing at the time to which he was accustomed, and he was disappointed. Actually, he was disgusted, and he wrote something that spelled out very clearly that he does not view the athletes he covers as people, but as his employees.

I'm not talking about his Tweet on Monday night, though, after Damar Hamlin had been taken from the field in an ambulance. The one that had pro athletes from plenty of different sports calling him all types asshole even though he didn’t quite Tweet what people believed he Tweeted.

No, this was back in 2001 when Skip Bayless was a columnist at the San Jose Mercury News. Five days after the terrorist attacks of 9/11, his column was published under the headline "Athletes failed in duty to provide us an escape." What follows is every bit as ghoulish as the title implies. The Mercury News keeps its archive locked down so I can't give you a link. Instead, I'm going to intersperse my commentary in italics amid his “prose” which has the red bar to the left.

By Skip Bayless

Mercury News staff columnist | September 16, 2001

The phone in my airport hotel room rang like a fire alarm Tuesday at 6:30 a.m. I was not pleased when a friend on the East Coast asked if I was awake. No, I said, my flight Monday night had been late.

"You better get awake," he said.

From that moment until 9 Tuesday night, I watched or listened to the coverage virtually non-stop. Over and over I saw the flames shoot from the second toward like Satan sticking out his tongue. Here I was alone in a hotel room, about to start a new job in a new place, with loved ones scattered from Chicago, where I just left the Tribune, to Oklahoma City, my hometown, and by nightfall my emotions were scattered like scorched debris.

OK. This is embarrassingly self-centered, but I wouldn’t categorize it as terrible. That day had a pretty strong emotional impact on me, too. I think it did on a ton of people, but I also know that I didn't have a parent or a spouse or a child who died in the attacks and I wasn't living in one of the cities that was attacked and while I don't think you need to have suffered a verified loss to talk about how it affected you, emphasizing your own emotional distress as Skip did is at the very least pretty vain and offputting. Also, comparing his emotions to "scorched debris" given the actual events is kinda tasteless, but I’d categorize the transgression here as just cringey.

I needed a break. I reached for the remote -- for the Giants or A's. Silly me. The only "escape" I could find was HBO's "Band of Brothers -- more war-is-hell from Spielberg-Hanks.

OK. So the emotional hardship here is that the HBO provided in your hotel room was not an adequate substitute for the sporting events you were accustomed to watching?

Then, to my disgust, I spent Wednesday and Thursday hearing outrageously paid athletes tell us how irrelevant sports are and how they just didn't feel like playing. Will these eight-figure whiners tell us how "truly unimportant" sports are before the next work stoppage? Do they think any of us felt like going to work Wednesday?

So you think it's disgusting for a professional athlete to have an emotional reaction to a national tragedy? Really? It’s disgusting?

It’s worth noting the reference to the work stoppage betrays a fundamental ignorance about the financial system of the sports leagues and our country to a larger extent, but I get it, finance is hard, and you’re just a dude who wants his sportsball! I will simply point out that the athletes don't work for you, Skip. At all. In any way. In fact, your livelihood is way more dependent upon them than their livelihoods are dependent upon you.

No athlete seemed to appreciate that sports became even more relevant last week. Cal Ripken almost got it right when he said: "I know we provide a service to society by allowing people to escape for a couple of hours." But he joined the woe-are-we chorus by adding, "I just don't feel like playing baseball."

Many in this country needed baseball and football to be played as soon as possible -- basweball by Thursday or Friday, college football by Saturday, the NFL by today.

No one needed baseball and football to be played in this country as soon as possible.

This was the least sports could have done for us after all we've done for them.

What -- exactly -- have you done for sports, Skip? Seriously. You are the one leaching off their efforts, and I know that because I’ve done the same thing for much of the past 25 years of my working life, and while your coverage may in fact increase the appetite of your readers to watch more sports, you are the one benefiting from this exchange, and not only that, but you don’t have the fundamental decency to recognize the humanity of the athletes that you’re covering.

Games should have been televised without commercial interruption. Game checks should have been donated to relief efforts. Even if many fans didn't feel safe enough to attend maximum-security games, players should have considered it their patriotic duty to play as hard as ever.

Did you donate your paycheck to relief efforts? Did you feel it your patriotic duty to write something that would be uplifting and inspiring to your readers rather than vent your spleen about how mad you were the athletes wouldn't come out and perform for you?

We needed a break.

But the players didn't?

Editor’s note: We pause in our forensic analysis for a quick commercial break. You’re reading “The Dang Apostrophe” which is a Substack newsletter (and attached podcast) authored by Danny O’Neil, Seattle media ex-pat now living in New York.

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People can mourn only so long before sinking into depression or wallowing in self-pity. People can sit around only so long fearing the next suicide bombing before idle minds become Osama bin Laden's workshop.

Hold up. Are you actually suggesting that the lack of a diversion would lead to ... terrorism? That might be the single stupidest sentence I've ever read in a sports column.

Please, I'm not remotely diminishing the loss of life or the anguish felt by those directly affected. But even some of the most devastated needed our gifted athletes to give America a gift -- a brief respite, something like Bob Hope entertaining the troops.

Except you're not a solider, Skip. You're not fighting a war. You're sleeping in a hotel with HBO. I think you're pretty far down on the priority list of people who need aid, inspiration or solace and I’m right there next to you.

Our athletes have never been any more or less than enormously gifted entertainers.

I actually agree with this.

These escape artists deserve actor-like salaries because their unscripted dramas can be even more enthralling than Hollywood's.

Nope. They deserve actor-like salaries because people pay millions, even billions of dollars to watch their performances. They deserve actor-like salaries because they organized to bargain for a larger share of the profits their performances generate. They deserve actor-like salaries because their efforts can be packaged and sold and because in this country you’re worth what you can get someone to pay you.

Sports' soap operas provide a daily safety valve from job pressures, domestic strife and personal tragedy. In an America that was already dangerous enough, sports gave us a break from worrying about drive-bys, cancer and earthquakes.

That may be their value to you, Skip, but that doesn’t mean the athletes are obligated to provide you with that. You don’t have a contract with them. They don’t work for you, and even if you did, you can’t make them work. At least not anymore in this country.

Forgive me, but I'm a sports nut. Maybe I need counseling, but nearly every night, I unwind by watching games or highlight shows. A majority of fans responding to media polls wanted the games played.

But this doesn't mean I'm sticking my head in the sand.

Nope. It's clear your head is firmly ensconced in your ass, Skip.

I have fully expected Desert Storm retaliation since fearing for my life at the 1991 Super Bowl. Then, an NFL security expert "assured" me: "They won't try to get even at something this secure. They're crazy, but they're not stupid. They'll bide their time."

OK. Two things:

  1. Who exactly is "they" here? Because the United States fought Iraq in Desert Storm after that nation invaded Kuwait. A terrorist group -- Al Qaeda -- was responsible for 9/11. Are “they” the same?

  2. Who in the world gives a good two shits about what an NFL security expert told a sports columnist at the Super Bowl 11 years ago with regard to our safety? My God, man. Get over yourself. Use a grappling hook if necessary1.

Apocalypse now. Yet I didn't want our games to go on just to show the psychos we won't let them disrupt our fat, happy existence. I wasn't groping for a return to normality, but a break from staggering abnormality. Please, just a few hours away from Laden-laden coverage. I'm red-alert awake, but I still need a little sleep.

Grumpy boy needs his sports so he can take a nap?

Instead the NFL basically let all-American capitalism dictate its decision to cancel. Appearance is high-finance reality, and the commissioner, owners, player reps and -- most important -- advertisers did not want to appear insensitive. While most customers wanted football now, the league would have invited the most media criticism by playing. So everyone took the politically correct, endorsement-protecting stance: "We don't matter now."

Or, maybe, they decided that all things considered nobody was really ready to play professional sports or to attend a pro sports game. That everybody could take a beat.

That's when baseball and college football decided they don't matter now, either.

Or maybe the people who run those sports weren't so self-important as to think we need to carry on unaffected so Skip Bayless can sleep at night.

ESPN's Peter Gammons reported that he heard from one player who wanted to play because the country needed baseball. But Gammons withheld the poor fool's identity to protect his reputation and shoe contract.

I have no issue with a player wanting to play. I don’t think any less of him. In fact, if all the players decided, 'Hey, we really want to play!' I would have no issue with them playing a game of sportsball. But if they didn't feel that way I find it not only distasteful but incredibly entitled to say, 'You should play because I don't want to think about what's been happening. You owe me this.' I'm not their boss, and furthermore, I recognize that they're human beings who deserve a baseline level of respect and freedom to choose what is best for themselves. The fact that you — who are paid to witness their performances so you can provide commentary — are not providing them with that same dignity diminishes your commentary in my opinion.

Broadway reopened Friday, but the NFL can't play today. Beginning Monday we'll hear the same players and TV commentators who said the games were irrelevant rhapsodize about how sports will help speed America's healing. They will not. Great sermons or speeches can help heal. Games are games, no more, no less.

If you don’t think they’ll help with healing, why in the world are you so hell-bent on having them played? You just demand the distraction? For the love of God, man, turn on a movie. Watch an old game. Listen to music. There's tons of ways to entertain yourself that doesn't require another human being performing live.

Just great games and greater escape.

Not for nothing, but this is the third example of absolutely hackneyed word play. First, it was "gifted athletes giving America a gift" and then it was "Laden-laden coverage" and now it's "great games and greater escape." I see what you’re doing there with the repetition and it’s corny as hell.

Cooped up in my hotel room Tuesday night reminded me of nights I've spent in foreign cities, searching the dial for something other than cricket.

Thoughts and prayers, Skip. That sounds really traumatic.

God bless America. I love our games. Our athletes are never heroes the way passengers on Flight 93 were. Our athletes aren't gods and shouldn't be role models. We pay our athletes to perform for us.

Actually, you don't pay anyone, Skip. You get press passes and free food and access to talk to these players you believe are obligated to perform for your pleasure. They're not your client, and you're not really their customer.

This week they weren't there when we needed them most.

When YOU needed them most because that's all that YOU can see is what YOU feel and what YOU want and what YOU believe you are entitled to. And actually, I think I've identified the problem here: YOU.

That’s the end of the column, and this is the point where it would be customary for the author to point out that Skip Bayless has ALWAYS been like this or to believe people when they show you who they are or to opine that it is long past the time he lost his job.

I don’t care about Skip Bayless’s employment. At all. I’m perfectly capable of steering clear of his content and not reacting to his opinions. I didn’t find that column and write this in the hope or belief that it would be the straw that finally breaks his media career.

I wrote this because I care about how athletes are treated and talked about in the media. I think it matters because I think it affects their emotional health and I think it can affect their career earnings.

Skip Bayless is far from the only person who fails to grant the athletes he covers that baseline dignity, but he is in my mind the most prominent and “successful” example. I do not think he — and the others like him — should be taken seriously. I don’t think their opinions should be treated as if they are valid. I don’t think that Shannon Sharpe — someone I do actually like — and other athletes should work with Bayless or engage with him because I think it provides a veil of legitimacy for Bayless, who at his core does not respect the athletes that he is purportedly covering.

This column from 2001 distills that perfectly and there is no chance it can be widely misconstrued. He said what he said, and while I know that there are a chunk of people in this country who share Skip Bayless’s antagonism and antipathy toward professional athletes, I also know that there are more people who don’t. Seek them out, interact with them and don’t hesitate to call out Bayless for exactly what he is: A self-absorbed hack who thinks the world revolves around without ever acknowledging the reality that he’s more of a parasite in this situation.

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