When Skip Bayless wrote a newspaper column in Dallas, no one accused him of being a Cowboys fan. They accused him of being the Cowboys’ toughest critic. He was the guy who wrote a muckraking book about the saintly Tom Landry, who pissed off Troy Aikman.
These days, as a TV debate host, Bayless wants viewers to know where his heart truly lies. “My beloved Cowboys,” he calls the team. He speaks of “my quarterback” Dak Prescott and “my defense.” In an interview over the holidays, Bayless joyously recounted the November game in which “we” upset the Saints.
If the Cowboys win, Bayless does a TV host’s version of an end zone dance. He might film himself doing Conor McGregor’s strut walk. Or he’ll come on his show Undisputed, pound the desk, and yell, “How ’bout dem Dallas Cowboys!” As he told me, “I just scream it because that’s my victory phrase, that’s my celebration phrase.”
If the Cowboys lose, you can find Bayless baring his tormented soul to “Cowboy nation” on Facebook Live. As he said after one loss, “I’m going to have a hard time sleeping tonight.”
In his columns, Bayless styled himself as a paragon of newspaper objectivity. Now, he sounds like the fan on the next barstool. The Cowboys’ overtime win over the Eagles? “That game took two years off my life.” The shutout loss at Indy? “That took another year off my life.” The Monday night disaster against Tennessee? “One of the lowest moments of my rooting career.”
“I’m out of my mind and I’m like falling on the floor,” Bayless said of his game-watching routine. “My wife will not watch any of these games with me and I wouldn’t subject her to that.”
As Dallas got ready to play Seattle in the wild-card round, Bayless was publicly cycling through emotions familiar to any of us sorry Cowboys fans. Last month, he said on Undisputed that he was so frustrated with Prescott’s inconsistency that he was ready to burn his no. 4 jersey. Then Bayless posted an Instagram photo of the jersey draped across his Christmas tree. Atop the tree, in the spot usually reserved for a star or an angel, Bayless hung a Cowboys baseball cap.
For years, sports TV has loved covering the Cowboys and loved hiring their ex-players. But, this year, if you’ve seen the NFL Network’s Michael Irvin break into the ecstatic sweat of an ’80s televangelist or ESPN’s Will Cain flash a triumphant smirk on First Take, you realize hosts aren’t just talking Cowboys. They’re rooting for the Cowboys.
The Cowboys’ season is being re-lived as a highly personal drama of triumph and despair, as a me-against-the-world pissing match with the “haters.” A shorter way of saying this is that, in media terms, Cowboys fandom is the new Red Sox fandom.
To hear Bayless tell it, he’s merely reverting to his natural state. As a kid growing up in Oklahoma, Bayless was a Cowboys fan. He went to his first game at the Cotton Bowl at age 10. In the 1970s, as a 20-something columnist at the Dallas Morning News, he had the unusual experience of covering his heroes.
There were giddy moments, like playing pick-up basketball against a pissed-off Roger Staubach. But Bayless soon discovered that Landry could be cold and uncaring, and that America’s Team regularly led the league in depravity.
“It was pretty sick business that was going on,” Bayless said. “And I loved it. But it was disillusioning to say the least.”
“I found I was wrestling with my conscience,” he continued. “And maybe, looking back, I was occasionally overly objective as I constantly tried to prove to myself that the journalist in me would always win out over the fan.”
Bayless’s Cowboys takes are the same as they always were. But he has traded newspaper style for what he calls the “mishegas” of jerseys and Facebook confessionals. “The premise of the debate show,” Bayless said, “is that you publicly commit to your fandoms, whatever team you love, but then you defend them with journalistic principles.” Bayless’s conversion is a case study in how debate TV learned to capture the idea of fandom. All it needed was the right avatar in the right jersey.
Being a public Cowboys fan is a funny thing. On Mondays, you not only have to answer for your football analysis, which you control, but for the Cowboys’ performance, which you don’t control at all.
“When they lose or embarrass me,” Bayless said, “then I have to sit on national television for two and a half hours at a time, getting relentlessly ridiculed by a Hall of Famer and Cowboy hater, Shannon Sharpe. It is relentless and it is painful.” He added, “The haters love to see the raw pain.”
Thankfully, the debate about whether sportswriters can be fans has been settled online and elsewhere. Yet every point a Cowboys media fan makes is scrutinized. “I think objectively there’s a debate to be had about who’s the best quarterback between Dak Prescott and Carson Wentz,” Cain told me. “People that aren’t Cowboys fans think I’m absolutely absurd about that, that that is hugely delusional and biased. I don’t.”
Last month, after the Cowboys got blown out by the Colts, the staff of Cain’s ESPN Radio show expected him to come on the air and own the loss. Cain thought the more interesting story that week was whether Wentz or Nick Foles was the better Eagles quarterback. Cain’s staff accused him of laundering his Wentz versus Prescott take through different means.
Dropping the mantle of objectivity allows a media Cowboys fan to be obsessive in ways that newspapers rarely allow. “As a columnist, how many times could I say a coach should be fired?” Bayless said. “Maybe once? Now, I do it what seems like every other week. It’s a completely different vehicle.”
Bayless also has more leeway to celebrate. On December 24, the day after the Cowboys clinched the NFC East, he went on FS1 and declared, “How ’bout dem Dallas Cowboys?!” Bayless took Christmas day off—his only vacation of the holidays. On December 26, during Undisputed’s A-block, he was once again reminding Sharpe of the Cowboys’ victory. On a football Monday, Bayless said, five or six of Undisputed’s 10 topics may be Cowboys-related.
There are enough Cowboys fans on TV that we can study their typologies. Bayless is the kind of fan who pushed aside disillusionment and re-embraced his inner child. Cain, who grew up north of Dallas in Sherman, never lost touch with his inner child to begin with. Cain, who is 43, cried when Dwight Clark caught the winning touchdown in the 1982 NFC championship game and is old enough to remember just how invincible the ’90s Cowboys were.
After a win, Cain represents Cowboys fandom in its most muscular form. The day after the Saints game, he walked onto the set of First Take, made a show of searching for Cowboys antagonist Stephen A. Smith (Smith was beaming in by remote that day), and put his feet up on Smith’s desk. It was such a pure moment of debate-show performance art that Dan Le Batard’s show did play-by-play of it in real time.
Irvin is a puzzle: Cowboys fandom at its most insufferable and most apologetic. He shies away from dropping the kind of bombs on the franchise that Aikman does; Irvin’s favored mode is pure pleasure. During the Cowboys-Saints game, Irvin leapt up and down on the Cowboys sideline and slapped high-fives with fans. As he later explained, he didn’t think being an impartial analyst was “working” for him anymore.
Sometimes, the media’s Cowboys fans make common cause. Last month on Undisputed, Bayless and Irvin, who were once cast in Dallas as writer and subject, sat together as putative allies. “I appreciate you having my back,” Irvin said of Bayless’s old columns.
“I got your back, I got your front …” Bayless said.
“I like you, buddy,” Irvin said. “You my man, Skip.”
More often, the Cowboys media fan faces off against an assigned foil—a “hater.” At ESPN, the role has been assumed by Smith, who recently told Irvin, “The last time y’all was something, you had an Afro. My hairline was two feet forward.”
The setting was a remote broadcast near AT&T Stadium before the Titans-Cowboys game. “Tonight, right here in Dallas, we see the dawn of a new day!” Irvin told an assembled crowd. “The beginning of a new age! And a time when the Cowboys will rightfully regain and take their proper spot among kings!”
“Mi-chael! Mi-chael!” the crowd chanted.
“I have taken over his show!” Irvin said of Stephen A.
After the Cowboys beat the Saints, a triumphant Irvin wore sunglasses on the NFL Network’s postgame show. Analyst Reggie Bush pointed out that Irvin had actually picked the Saints to win the game. “That has nothing to do with the price of tomatoes here tonight!” Irvin said.
Right around then, NFL Network cameras caught analyst Steve Smith Sr., the former Panthers receiver, on the far side of the set. Smith was wearing one of the most amazing expressions I’ve ever seen on TV. It was a mix of annoyance, dread of the coming Cowboys media deluge, and sheer bafflement that anyone would crow about a team that hasn’t won a meaningful postseason game in 23 years. Whether he intended it or not, Smith was now a stock character in Cowboys TV theater. He was a “hater.”
Cowboys fandom is a national media phenomenon. No reporter or radio host in Dallas operates in quite the same, exuberant way. This is because the Dallas media operates under the same constraints Bayless once did as a columnist. Meanwhile, sports television has undergone enormous changes.
The networks once demanded that the ex-players they hired take monastic vows: No cheering in the broadcast booth. But in the early 2000s Irvin launched his TV career on the Best Damn Sports Show Period, where nobody much cared whether he rooted. Irvin once told me—I think correctly—that he was the first national homer.
Similarly, when Cain was filing pieces for ESPN’s Outside the Lines, producers steered him away from Cowboys stories, feeling his fandom might get in the way. But on his radio show or First Take, Cain’s fandom is an asset, because the highest value is no longer objectivity but authenticity.
“If I’m pretending like none of that existed in my life and I have some magical objectivity hat that I can put on,” Cain said, “I think I’ve violated the first rule of the whole business, which is I’m lying to the audience.”
Cowboys fandom flourishes on TV because of former FS1 boss Jamie Horowitz’s maxim that hosts should ignore minor stories and hit the “A” topics over and over. When I tuned in to Undisputed last Monday, a Cowboys segment followed a segment about LeBron James quoting 21 Savage’s lyrics—the classic debate show twofer. As Cain noted, this Cowboys mania becomes its own kind of fuel: the haters are mad at the Cowboys not just for the usual reasons (the gloating, the Super Bowls) but because the media won’t stop talking about them.
But Cowboys fandom has found a home on TV for a simpler reason. As with Boston sports fandom/antagonism more than a decade ago, producers have simply taken something that already existed in the universe and assigned it a journalist avatar. Every Monday, Bayless gets to crow or take his medicine as a kind of national surrogate. “This is exactly what’s happening at water coolers and in barbershops around the country every NFL Monday morning,” he said.
Case in point: This Friday, ESPN will dispatch “noted Cowboys critic” Stephen A. Smith to a remote broadcast in Arlington, even though the network is showing the Texans-Colts playoff game. Trolling Cowboys fans turns out to be at least as valuable a commodity as the game the network actually has the rights to.
For decades, sportswriters have confessed their fandom to show their relatability. This is why, every Sunday, you find otherwise hardheaded NFL writers tweeting about their teams like they’re Fireman Ed. The emotions are real, I’m sure, but once spilled out on Twitter they become a public performance: Let’s emote together, fam.
For a TV debate host, fandom solves a different problem. It’s less about relatability than believability. How can any human on earth have a dozen opinions a day about Dak Prescott, LeBron, and Antonio Brown? When a debate show host says he’s a fan, he’s attaching his hot takes to a vulnerable part of his soul.
After talking to Bayless, I thought of his appearance on Facebook Live after an early-season Cowboys win. The “old” Bayless of his newspaper days had transformed completely. He was wearing a Cowboys cap like the one that would hang on his Christmas tree. He looked into his phone. His tone of nervous triumphalism was one familiar to any of us who will be at AT&T Stadium on Saturday. “Cowboys are back,” Bayless said. “Here we go. Thank you for watching.”