In July 2003, Los Angeles Lakers star Kobe Bryant was arrested in Colorado on sexual assault charges. Though the charges were eventually dropped because the witness refused to testify, Bryant and his accuser settled an ensuing civil suit out of court nearly two years later.
Nearly a decade later, ESPN commentator Skip Bayless offered a unique take on the assault charges while discussing Bryant on Monday morning’s episode of the ESPN show First Take. The charges, Bayless said, gave Bryant “edge” and “sizzle” in a way that made him more appealing.
“Remember Kobe pre-Eagle, Colorado? He failed in his first sneaker deal because he was just too clean cut and I think it was Adidas that had him first, correct me if I’m wrong, but he couldn’t sell sneakers because he didn’t have enough edge,” Bayless said. “But then post-Eagle, Colorado it brought a little attention to him, like it gave him a little bit of sizzle.”
So there you have it: in a sports world that is at least in part reconsidering the way it talks and reacts to sexual assault and domestic violence cases and its lax responses to athletes involved in them, one of ESPN’s most high-profile personalities is sending the message that an athlete’s involvement in such a case can be good for his brand. Which is insensitive and problematic enough even before we consider that it isn’t true, in this case or any other: as Awful Announcing pointed out, Bryant lost multiple endorsement deals following the rape charges, and Nike didn’t use him in public advertisements for two years afterward even as the company stuck by him.
This sort of message, though, has become all too common for First Take, the manufactured-debate show that seems to count over-the-top commentary as part of its appeal. It was Stephen A. Smith, Bayless’s regular First Take counterpart, who used the Ray Rice incident to tell women not to “provoke” violence against them during a July episode, then defended those words when another ESPN employee called him out on Twitter. That earned Smith a week-long suspension, and perhaps Bayless will end up with a similar punishment. But the message clearly isn’t getting across.
ESPN regularly defends this show, which is admittedly a solid ratings earner, as an an opportunity to offer something different in tone than the hard-line journalism that takes place on shows like Outside The Lines and the more traditional commentary on its other studio shows. But this is a network that, even with its hiccups, produced some solid journalism and commentary around the recent scandals. And then there’s First Take, which keeps delivering moments like this instead.