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At ESPN, criticism of Skip Bayless apparently was forbidden

Paley Prize Gala Honoring ESPN's 35th Anniversary Presented By Roc Nation Sports - Inside

NEW YORK, NY - MAY 28: ESPN hosts Stephen A. Smith (L) and Skip Bayless attend the Paley Prize Gala honoring ESPN’s 35th anniversary presented by Roc Nation Sports on May 28, 2014 in New York City. (Photo by Larry Busacca/Getty Images for Paley Center for Media)

Getty Images for Paley Center for Media

As the guy who once speculated that Troy Aikman is gay prepares to become Aikman’s colleague at FOX, Skip Bayless first must disengage from ESPN. And it sure seems like plenty of his colleagues in Bristol aren’t upset about being his former colleagues.

For years, none of the other ESPN employees called out Bayless for some of his buffoonish opinions on First Take. Now that he’s leaving, it’s open season -- starting with Scott Van Pelt’s obvious knock at Bayless after the Cavaliers won Game Seven of the NBA Finals.

So why wasn’t there more ESPN-on-ESPN crime involving Bayless in the past? Apparently, it was prohibited.

Via SportsBusiness Daily, Ryen Russillo and Danny Kanell addressed the issue of criticizing Bayless during their ESPN Radio show on Monday.

Said Russillo: “If [Dan] Le Batard wanted to come on and say, ‘I can’t believe Russillo said this,’ or Mike & Mike can’t believe Russillo said this, I would be okay with it. I may disagree with them, [but] I would be okay with it. The problem is when you disagree with Skip, you’re not allowed to, and then he gets mad at you about it. So like, nobody wants to deal with it. That’s why when the LeBron stuff comes up, if you’re going to be so clearly doctoring the results to keep pushing you don’t like LeBron or you don’t think he’s any good, then go ahead and keep doing it because it’s clearly great for business. But you can’t get mad at other opinion people for being like, ‘Well, that’s just insane and I don’t even know if you believe it.’”

“Isn’t there a time, too, when you just have to go, ‘I was wrong?’ Isn’t there a time?” Kanell said.

“But it’s not good for business,” Russillo said. “Business is good, so I respect that part of it. But we’re all big boys, we all say stuff, and all of us, because we’re opinion guys, disagree with each other all the time. But when you disagree with Skip, it gets handled a different way and a lot of us are just like, ‘Whatever.’ So that’s why we never bring it up.”

“Well, we don’t have to worry about it anymore,” Kanell added.

They don’t have to worry about it anymore, as it relates to Bayless. But which other on-air personalities are or will be insulated from criticism?

Does Stephen A. Smith get the same special treatment? If he previously did, will enough ESPN on-air personalities decide that they’re no longer going to keep quiet when Smith or anyone else who may not react well to being called out says something worthy of criticism?

Clearly, Smith won’t react well if it happens. Go back and listen to the PFT Live discussion about Smith’s reaction to the suggestion that his hot (and misguided) take regarding the NFLPA’s legal bills had been fed to him by the league office. Smith believes that members of the media shouldn’t talk about other members of the media, with the exception of any members of the media who exclusively cover the media.

Smith gets riled up when “colleagues” who work for other companies (which necessarily makes them, you know, not colleagues) talk about him. Imagine what he’ll do if his actual colleagues choose to talk about him.

Maybe imagination won’t be required. Maybe the Bayless departure will embolden others to speak up, even if it causes Smith to blow a gasket. If enough ESPN personalities do it, what’s ESPN going to do? Fire all of them?

Meanwhile, Bayless exits Bristol and its built-in (but shrinking) audience of people who tune in to ESPN because it’s ESPN for FOX and an audience that has to be built largely from scratch, while he at the same time avoids crossing paths with Aikman.

“I will tell you this. I’ve not seen -- I’ve not physically seen Skip Bayless since that time,” Aikman said in 2011. “That was in ’95. And I still kind of wonder what I might do to him when I do see him.”

As recently as last year, Aikman was still unhappy with Bayless.

“I’m upset about it because it was made up and there was nothing accurate about anything that was insinuated. And he did it, as he does everything, just for attention,” Aikman told Richard Deitsch of in January 2015.

Bayless may have gotten special consideration while at ESPN when saying goofy things. Chances are that Aikman -- and presumably others at FOX -- won’t be giving him that same privilege once he officially joins them.

UPDATE 11:30 p.m. ET: An ESPN spokesperson forwarded to PFT a quote from Russillo. “What I referenced yesterday was something personal between me and Skip,” Russillo said. “It had nothing to do with ESPN policy.” It’s a fair point, but there’s a huge difference between “policy” and “practice.” If in practice, criticism of Skip Bayless triggered internal complaints from Bayless that were supported directly or indirectly by management, “ESPN policy” is irrelevant.