Troy Aikman is pissed at Skip Bayless. He told Sports Illustrated’s Richard Deitsch that Bayless, who’s now his coworker at Fox, is neither “talented,” “respected,” nor “credible.” Why is Aikman mad? “In a book (Hell-Bent) on the Dallas Cowboys in the 1990s,” Deitsch wrote, “Bayless made an unsubstantiated claim that Aikman was gay.”
If there’s one fact repeatedly cited in critiques of Bayless, other than his made-for-TV feud with Stephen A., it’s this: 20 years ago, Bayless may or may not have claimed in a book that Aikman was gay. I hesitate to wade into the minefield. But it’s worth revisiting what Bayless actually wrote in 1996, because it’s a little more complicated than the way it’s being portrayed. I know, because I was living in North Texas then, I was reading Bayless religiously, and I can still pull a copy of Hell-Bent, that I bought on the day it was published, off my bookshelf.
By 1996, Bayless was as polarizing a figure in Dallas as he is now across America. A lot of — perhaps most — local sportswriters didn’t like him. They charged that he was a born controversialist (true) and a loner who didn’t drink with the boys at Louie’s bar (also true — Bayless doesn’t drink much, if at all). Yet in the age when most newspaper columnists spoke only to a single city, Bayless had willed himself into becoming a national figure. He was a regular on ESPN; he’d written two muckraking books; and when his paper, the Dallas Times Herald, went under in 1991, he started faxing his column to readers for $99 a year — a gambit that anticipated the internet.
Hell-Bent was billed as the inside story of a team with two Super Bowl rings that had turned into a Porsche with no brakes. The book’s main feature was fresh reporting about the feud between Aikman and Cowboys coach Barry Switzer. In fact, “the rumor,” as Bayless called it on Page 186, was being circulated by the “Switzer camp”:
This is the first thing recent references to the Bayless-Aikman feud omit: that the rumor, as least as presented in Hell-Bent, was being circulated by the comrades of Aikman’s own head coach. After hearing the rumor, Bayless talked to Aikman’s agent Leigh Steinberg, a Dallas police source, a team source, and Aikman’s sportscaster pal Dale Hansen. They all said there was no evidence Aikman was gay.
Next, Bayless wondered aloud whether such a rumor was newsworthy even if it were true. (“[W]hat should the sexual preference of a pro athlete matter to a journalist?”) He noted how easily rumors can attach themselves to superstar athletes. (“[I]f a stud quarterback speaks openly of how much he loves spending time with his ‘buddies’ … is he automatically branded ‘gay’ in our macho, homophobic society?”) Bayless wrote that Switzer himself sometimes stayed in a hotel in Dallas’s “gay district” — someone with an agenda could start a rumor about him.
But the “Switzer camp” kept telling Bayless the rumor did matter. From Page 188:
The rumor consumes about six of the book’s 290 pages. These pages are studded with whispers from anonymous sources and written in the voice of a reporter trying to figure out what to do. When Bayless couldn’t find evidence the rumor was true, he more or less dropped the subject. In the book, he didn’t claim Aikman was gay.
Bayless writing a Cowboys book was a big deal in Dallas. His first book had cast Tom Landry as something other than a kindly old man, and his second anticipated the divorce between “best pals” Jerry Jones and Jimmy Johnson. When word got out that Bayless was investigating “the rumor,” it was like a tornado siren played round-the-clock on local sports radio. It was common to hear then — as it’s common to read now — that Bayless was writing an “Aikman is gay” book.
After winning Super Bowl XXX, Aikman himself called Bayless. His words — as reprinted in Hell-Bent — were: “I am not gay.” Aikman added, “How can I fight this? Am I supposed to keep a girl around even if I don’t care anything about her, just so I can keep everybody off my back?”
Back in 1996, when Hell-Bent the book was being read rather than half-remembered, criticism of the book was slightly different. Writers charged that by merely printing a rumor sourced to someone else — even if it was portrayed as a weapon wielded by the “Switzer camp” — Bayless had done something irresponsible. “Once the charge is levied, there is no response that sounds believable,” the Boston Globe’s Dan Shaughnessy wrote.
Another columnist called Hell-Bent “voyeuristic journalism”: “The upshot is that nitwits with microphones and notepads have spent this week asking … Aikman, in one form or another, ‘Are you gay?’”
For his part, Bayless countered that the rumor had been floating around Dallas for years (he’s right about that, as I can attest) and that he’d done the legwork to try to figure out if it was true. He was furious that Hell-Bent was being dismissed as an “Aikman is gay” tell-all. “If that’s the way it works, then I’m sickened by my business and I guess I’m sickened by this interview with you,” Bayless told Shaughnessy. “It’s not fair to me, either.”
It’s worth noting a couple of other bits of context. One: In Hell-Bent, Bayless was crawling farther out onto the journalistic ledge than he had in his other books and his Times Herald column. This may have been inspired by the fact that, by 1996, Bayless was more or less his own boss — that, as he said recently of his Fox gig, he’d “tak[en] off the handcuffs.”
Second: There were a lot of other things in the book that made Aikman angry! In a chapter called “The N-Word,” Bayless printed a rumor that Aikman had called wide receiver Kevin Williams a “nigger.” It was sourced in the same manner as the other rumor: “[S]everal in the Switzer camp thought Aikman had lost his head and used the n-word.” (Aikman denied it.) Bayless also retold a rumor — again from the “Switzer camp” — that Aikman had “in effect … taken a dive” in a game against Washington. (Bayless admitted the idea was looney but explored it all the same.)
What I’m suggesting here isn’t a defense of Bayless. You can read the above and conclude that Hell-Bent was irresponsible. But if we’re talking about journalistic ethics, we should probably nail down the journalism that was actually done. Did Bayless claim in Hell-Bent that Troy Aikman was gay? No. Did he print claims from other, unnamed persons that Aikman was gay? Yes. Can we assume Bayless did so knowing the results would be explosive? Absolutely. Bayless is not naïve.
Revisiting all this, I’m reminded that both Dallas and the sportswriting terrarium were a lot different in 1996 than they are now. I wonder what the editors at Deadspin would do if they learned the pals of an NFL coach were spreading a similar rumor about the coach’s star QB. But that’s a question for a longer, thornier media column; this one’s a minor corrective. If you’re going to criticize Skip Bayless for what he wrote about Troy Aikman, this is where you ought to start.