LOS ANGELES – When Skip Bayless was finalizing his move from ESPN to Fox Sports 1 in 2016, he had one name at the top of his list for who he wanted across the desk from him when his new debate show, Undisputed, launched: Shannon Sharpe.
Bayless was insistent that Fox should pair him with Sharpe, which on the surface seemed like a bit of a curious choice. The Hall of Fame tight end had spent a decade in sports media as an analyst for The NFL Today on CBS from 2004-2014, but he had limited experience working on a show that discussed more than just football and would ask him to offer his opinions, rather than analysis.
The reason Sharpe topped Bayless’ list was because that limited experience was across the desk from Bayless on First Take, where Sharpe had been an occasional fill-in for Stephen A. Smith, and it only took two weeks of shows for Bayless to know Sharpe was more than game as an opponent in Bayless’ preferred debate format and was much more than just a football guy.
“Fortunately, as we were conceiving the idea for the show, I was still on the other show, but knew I was L.A. bound and Shannon had sat in for Stephen A. Smith a number of times,” Bayless says. “In fact, we had one more big week with him on there, and I think maybe totaled 10 shows. You get a pretty good feel for a man’s range and rhythm and sort of durability under fire if you do 10 shows. And what impressed me the most about Shannon at ESPN on First Take was how hard he prepared and how well he knew the NBA. Because I’m now convinced he’s even more passionate about the NBA than he is the NFL. Who knew?”
Bayless felt like he had a rare gift in Sharpe, and one he could help build a show around.
“Now I have the best of worlds,” Bayless says, “because I obviously have a pro football Hall of Famer, who knows a thing or two about the NFL, and he spills over with NBA background knowledge and current knowledge, and would just as soon go at it over LeBron and Russell Westbrook as he would Tom Brady and Aaron Rodgers. This is, so to speak, if I can combine one more metaphor, a home-run for our show for the pro football Hall of Famer to prefer to talk about the NBA.”
Sharpe’s love of the NBA and, specifically, LeBron James has been a huge part of giving the show a strong dynamic because Bayless is one of the foremost LeBron haters on the planet. Sharpe will happily tell you LeBron is the greatest of all time, surpassing Michael Jordan, much to the dismay of Bayless, but it’s that conviction in his opinions on more than just football that makes the show work.
Fox brought Sharpe in to making him Bayless’ partner on the show, and the biggest concern was whether Sharpe wanted to take on the workload of a 2.5-hour-long debate show that would require a 4 a.m. PT call time. Fox Sports executive vice president Charlie Dixon and others had concerns that Sharpe, as a former athlete, would be committed enough for the rigors of the show, but as they quickly learned, Sharpe was highly motivated to dominate in whatever he was focusing on, from spin class to a TV show.
“When you’re developing a show around Skip Bayless, he’s the most prepared person I’ve ever worked with in my life,” Dixon said. “So the concern with hiring athletes is always, ‘Are they done?’ He’s a Hall of Fame tight end. He made a ton of money. So, does he care? My stock question I always ask is ‘What do you do with that energy?’ Some people say, ‘Oh, you know, I don’t care. I’m done.’ Others say, ‘I want to be on TV.’ [Shannon] said, ‘I do six Flywheel classes a day. I’m No. 1 in the country. My name is the Spin Doctor.’ At that moment, I knew.”
The hope was that Sharpe could handle the challenge of a show that asks him to debate Skip Bayless, who prides himself on trying to break his on-air opposition, for two and a half hours. What no one knew was that they were getting more than just another talking head that would rattle off his takes on various sports topics, but someone that was going to speak passionately about some of the more serious topics that bleed into sports talk, most notably race and the growth of Colin Kaepernick’s national anthem protest.
Undisputed‘s very first show was on Sept. 6, 2016 and Kaepernick’s protest was among the very first topics they approached. Sharpe assumed the protest would be a one-off discussion, one in which he would speak honestly and passionately about why the then-49ers quarterback was taking a knee and why people should listen to his message.
What happened was Sharpe became one of the leading voices on the topic of the anthem protests, providing his unique perspective having grown up very differently than the vast majority of talking heads on TV. Sharpe insisted that rather than bloviating on whether Kaepernick was respecting the troops by kneeling, they needed to continue to stay on top of the reason why he was kneeling, to protest the racial discrimination in this country that continuously popped up in the form of the killing of unarmed black men by police.
“I do have a very unique perspective in that being African American, being from the rural South, growing up poor, and being well-off now,” Sharpe says. “So I got an opportunity to see two different spectrums, and I think the thing is is that we expect people that have platforms to act and do something about it. It’s just not good enough to be in position if you’re not trying to tell someone or try to help someone to do better and to be better. And I think we owe it all, not just if you’re black, but — it doesn’t matter your race, if that you’re trying to make America great for everyone. Because I look at it like if everybody in America’s not doing well, America’s not doing well … And the Kap thing just kind of fell in our lap. I mean, we had no idea. We’re basically the first week and this kind of falls in our lap.”
Sharpe thought he’d get the chance to give his take on the situation, and eventually they’d move onto another topic. But it was Bayless who wanted to discuss it further.
“Skip was like, ‘No, we’re going to talk about it again.’ I’m like, ‘Really? Okay.’ I think the thing is it was what needed to be discussed but he could see the passion in which I had for it, because like I said, speaking from a very unique perspective, being African American, being an athlete, growing up poor, and being here now and to try and give people a glimpse and try to weave them into let ‘Okay, this is what he’s thinking.’ Don’t change the narrative. Don’t try to distort his message and let’s keep it on focus and a lot of so much as gotten distorted … from the time we started to where we are now, a lot of his message has been lost because people have changed the narrative because that’s something they don’t want to talk about.”
Sharpe’s willingness to discuss the reason behind the protest and focus on keeping the discussion on that message is not common among most sports TV personalities, and it’s why his comments resonated so well with so many. That authenticity comes through on all topics, but it’s easy to be passionate and fire off takes and opinions on whatever’s happening on the court or the field. Where Sharpe separates himself is in those moments where he can speak with conviction on social issues in sports and come across just as authentic as when he’s heaping praise on LeBron.
While Sharpe generally shrugs off the idea that he’s an authority on topics of race in sports as him just being himself and speaking his mind, Bayless is quick to heap praise on his partner for “owning” those moments and topics.
“He isn’t just comfortable talking about race topic, he owns race topics,” Bayless says. “And I have mostly gone along for the ride, but I’m also fearless when it comes to race topics or socio-political topics that do effect the sports world. And I’m not surprised by any of that because I knew him off camera and how passionate he is about politics and race. And he comes from a different place racially than some of my former partners because he grew up rural, south Georgia, as you know, and it’s just a different plane.”
It’s rare for Bayless to admit he’s ever “along for the ride,” but while he prides himself on being willing to speak on any topic involving race and politics, it’s clear watching the show that in those moments he lets Sharpe steer the conversation because he knows Sharpe’s experience and viewpoint is so important and unique to the platform.
“[Sharpe’s] mindset is going to be forged differently than Stephen A’s mindset growing up in Queens, New York City. It’s just different. Rob Parker, who just walked through here, who’s on our show, grew up in very mixed neighborhood, so his mindset obviously from grade school to high school to here is very different. And I embrace that. And so we have some of our best discussions on air when you bring Shannon’s extremely powerful point of view and maybe mixed with Rob’s Jamaica, Queens point of view, and my white point of view from Oklahoma City, Oklahoma. So it all melds, and sometimes it makes pretty good, pretty powerful television.”
What’s endeared Sharpe to viewers and made him something of a social media darling is the ease with which he pivots from speaking so seriously and eloquently about what is a difficult topic for many to the much lighter moments that are also so genuine. Sharpe is arguably most famous not for any of his thoughtful commentary on Kaepernick or hot takes on LeBron, but for the “Milds and that Yac.”
As Sharpe explains, he was simply trying to have fun with Bayless following the Cowboys losing to the Broncos last season and then it took off to become something of a reoccurring bit anytime he wants to celebrate anything on the show (or on social media).
“I was shocked [it blew up],” Sharpe says. “I had no idea. I had no idea. I was just coming in, he had his team, I had mine. It just so happened that the Broncos had played the Cowboys the night before. The Broncos blow them out and I’m like, “I’m going to get me a victory cigar.” And I had no idea. A lot of this stuff that I say, you don’t know, you have no idea. I had no idea that was going to take off. I mean, when they cut these clips and they send them out, I have no idea that it’s going to get the play that it does because you just don’t know.”
Just like that, people were referencing the clip when they came up to Sharpe with a quickness.
“I’m just being me and the next thing you know it’s gone and every NFL player, NBA player, that’s one of the first, “Hey, where the Milds and the Yac at?” I mean, I never, never thought in my wildest imagination that would take off, I mean, they put a song to it, or we would … I thought we could be good, but I didn’t know we could be this good this fast.”
For Bayless, having that comedic relief and those moments of levity is new to him, but even he’s found he enjoys when “Uncle Shannon” makes an appearance to break up the stream of takes.
“That has been something of a surprise to me. He’s more of a character than I thought he was,” Bayless says. “I didn’t see that side of him at First Take because … he wasn’t comfortable enough on this show that wasn’t his to do that, and so occasionally I’m dumbfounded by it, but pleasantly surprised or shocked. Because it does lighten us up, and I lighten us up with outrage over some topics that are my pet topics that aren’t that serious, but I take them far too seriously, so that’s funny how I overthink something, or take something way to seriously that doesn’t really merit it. But I can play off his … that sort of Uncle Shannon character, and some of his LeBron idolatry is funny to me.”
Bayless has had many partners over the years dating back to Cold Pizza where he first got dropped across from Woody Paige, who he notes was the only other partner that’s tried bringing in humor like Sharpe but that Paige was more “clownish” and was “hard to take seriously.” Many of those partners came and went, with only Stephen A. Smith matching Bayless’ intensity level and near neuroticism about sports debate before his departure for FS1.
Sharpe has matched that intensity by channeling that energy that made him “the Spin Doctor” at Flywheel into those 4 a.m. call times and 2.5 hour live shows. Over the course of more than 18 months, he’s yet to miss a show or ask for a vacation and Bayless insists he’s never even see him mail in a segment. For some athletes, retirement is a chance to kick their feet up and relax, but for others, the drive for competition is insatiable.
Sharpe falls into that latter category and he’s found his outlet for that in Undisputed, where he’s provided a platform he’s never had to talk about the NFL, NBA, and whatever else is pressing on his mind in the world of sports with hardly any time restraints. He’s offered the freedom not only to talk about what he wants, but to do so how he wants and to bring his unique perspective to topics serious and light.
As Sharpe says, “I can be Shannon better than anybody else can be him, and so since [Skip] and FS1 has allowed me to be me, I think they’ve got a better product.”