Shannon Sharpe commentating while wearing a headset
Photo: Cindy Ord/Getty Images

Shannon Sharpe Was Too Good for ‘Undisputed’

The NFL Hall-of-Famer has outgrown the show’s insufferable debates

After just under seven years, Shannon Sharpe’s time sitting across from Skip Bayless and making bets over Diet Mountain Dew has come to an end. And it’s likely because of the disrespect Bayless sent Sharpe’s way over a conversation about Tom Brady.

I was an avid watcher of YouTube clips of their FS1 daily show. It’s a major character flaw, I know, but I enjoyed a handful of aspects regarding Skip and Shannon: Undisputed, such as Sharpe’s personality. Saying someone is “unapologetically Black” feels trite these days. It feels like a Juneteenth shirt with slogans on it from Target, or like performing blackness while sticking your tongue out at white folks, going “na-na na-na boo-boo!” Still, Sharpe was truly his cognac-sipping, obscure country aphorism-spitting, goat mask-wearing self. He always came across as authentic and it was a sight to behold (see: Shannon wielding a Black & Mild cigar on national TV). As a Cowboys fan (another character flaw), I appreciated that he and Skip always found a way to talk about America’s team, no matter what. I can understand how other people may find this annoying, but believe me when I tell you that if I hear “the stars at night are big and bright” in the middle of a funeral, there’s a 33 percent chance I’m going to start clapping and finish that lyric.

Occasionally, the duo would also have conversations about serious topics where sports, race, and politics intersect. However, that’s where the show’s good qualities end. The gimmick of Undisputed was obnoxious debate built on bravado. Unc will be better off with it in his rear view.

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Before he became Bayless’ co-host, Sharpe already had a bust in Canton, Ohio, and was one of the greatest tight ends in NFL history. But his name didn’t carry the sort of gravitas it does now. Sharpe earned a reputation for his wit and colorfulness around the league, but you wouldn’t know that unless you were a big football fan. With his playing days two decades in the past, the lore of his iconic wit and trash-talking could have easily become largely forgotten. Some young stars haven’t even done the knowledge about how great he was on the field.

But with Undisputed, Sharpe became another type of star, the likes of which we haven’t really seen before. He became known as a former player with an outsized charisma who knows the game, but can hold his own in debates about any sport. Bayless was once one hell of a sports journalist who thrived off hatred and had an ego as massive as the gulf in time since the Cowboys’ last Super Bowl. The last two qualifiers still hold true, but he’s no longer a good journalist; Bayless has played a major role in the decline of broadcast sports commentary.

The gimmick of 'Undisputed' was obnoxious debate built on bravado. Unc will be better off with it in his rear view.

During their stint on ESPN’s First Take, Bayless and Stephen A. Smith built their brands on combative and belligerent debate. The show became so popular that this hook has become the norm. Because capitalism. Turn on your television today and you’re very likely to see men just screaming at each other about the same handful of topics. It’s like Twitter but instead of stupid people having stupid repetitive arguments, it’s (mostly) smart guys having stupid repetitive arguments. (The rap duo Little Brother even picked up on this, satirizing the genre on an interlude from the 2019 album May the Lord Watch.)

There are few things more lowbrow than Undisputed, First Take, Speak For Yourself, or whatever other debate show. Those programs make Milf Island look like Barry Jenkins’ Criterion Channel watch list. Perhaps, with his departure, Sharpe will spend more time focusing on his podcast, Club Shay Shay, which is interesting and unburdened by a lust for spectacle. (He might end up right back on morning television.) Undisputed will be fine. Bayless will find some other co-host to scream at while he petulantly bangs on a desk.

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In October 2004, Jon Stewart was a guest on CNN’s Crossfire program. Instead of promoting his newly released book, America (The Book): A Citizen's Guide to Democracy Inaction, Stewart took the opportunity to castigate Crossfire’s entire premise, criticizing the way the show turned serious topics into painful sensational discourse. Stewart called a spade a spade. The show was hot garbage. He dressed the producers and stars down so badly that the show got canceled only a few months later. Stewart isn’t above reproach, and his commentary that day kind of created a monster—granted, he could probably not see his keen kerfuffle kicking Tucker Carlson’s influence into hyper-speed. All of this is to say Stewart was right in calling out what former CNN president Jonathan Klein later labeled "head-butting debate shows,” because they are a virus that have infected the 24-hour news cycle in political news and sports journalism alike. At times it’s amusing, but ultimately it’s insufferable. I'm happy to see that Shannon Sharpe has removed himself from the fray.