Keyshawn Johnson opens up about life after ESPN, what Skip Bayless is really like
When ESPNs layoffs happened at the end of June, Keyshawn Johnson was on the luxurious island of Turks and Caicos. When ESPN cut him, he was neither shocked nor too taken aback.
After nearly two decades with the network and having recently signed a five-year, $18 million contract, Johnson is not the type to just sit around and collect his money. He knew what he would do next.
So, to paraphrase Johnsons most classic line, he told ESPN executives: Just give me my damn rights!
They eventually did and Johnson, 51, quickly started the second act of his sports media career.
While other ESPN layoffs have popped up here and there, many are riding out their contracts staying quiet so as not to jeopardize the money they are owed. Johnson is talking, and for the first time, about what happened at ESPN.
He had reached the pinnacle at the network from top NFL studio shows to the lead name on ESPN Radio mornings.
I understand it wasnt based on my talent, Johnson told The Post. It was probably financially for what they wanted to do as a company. I never really looked at it as if Im no good or I suck.
5ESPN laid off Keyshawn Johnson earlier this year. AP.@keyshawn tells the Lakers to pick it up after a 127-125 loss vs. Mavs:Have the same intensity you had for the tournament in these regular season games. pic.twitter.com/PcUctpLMG8
— UNDISPUTED (@undisputed) December 13, 2023Johnson had an 11-year NFL career as a wide receiver, including the first four with the Jets after being taken in the first round of the 1996 draft. He made the transition to media, joining ESPN immediately after his 2007 retirement.
His ESPN departure has been the rare case in which he has quickly replicated his platforms and his compensation with his next move. This allowed him to free himself from his ESPN contract. When ESPN lays off contracted on-air personalities, it still has to pay them, but it can prevent a person from taking another job.
During its five layoffs over the past decade, there have been different outcomes for ex-employees. ESPN has handled people case-by-case, being difficult with some and easier with others. The common issue is failing to replicate a salary, giving Disney/ESPN to grant permission or not on any next move.
Since the fall, Johnson has been on television every weekday, verbally sparring with Skip Bayless on FS1s Undisputed.
Bayless is polarizing because he has some outlandish opinions. However, like many who have worked closely with him, Johnson really likes Bayless because of his passion and his incredible energy that has not dissipated, despite being a septuagenarian.
People think that Skip just says anything he throws against the wall, Johnson said. No, he really truly believes in the stuff that he says because hes not making things up as he goes. You have to appreciate that. He really thinks the Dallas Cowboys are going to the Super Bowl. I think he is delusional, but thats just me.
5Keyshawn Johnson arrives at the GQ Men of the Year party held at the Chateau Marmont Hotel on Nov. 18, 2008 in Los Angeles. Getty Images for GQUndisputed is losing in the ratings against Stephen A. Smiths First Take which took Bayless former partner, Shannon Sharpe, as a two-day-a-week debater.
Bayless and Johnson are hurt by the so-far poor ratings of its lead in, The Carton Show, which features former WFAN host Craig Carton.
In terms of its format, Undisputed should probably add a moderator to distribute the takes, like Molly Qerim does for First Take, instead of having Bayless, a shooting guard, as the point, flanked by Johnson, as well as contributors Richard Sherman, Michael Irvin and Rachel Nichols.
5Keryhawn Johnson (l) with Richard Sherman (c) and Skip Bayless (r). @UndisputedOnFS1/YouTubeAt ESPN, Johnson did pretty much everything, except host a podcast. With FS1 he has begun one, which has a yet-to-be-determined full-time name. It will feature Johnson, family members and all types of contributors and interviews.
Johnson now lives just 20 minutes give or take with LA traffic from the Fox studios. At ESPN, Johnson relocated his family to Brooklyn for the morning radio show in the summer of 2020.
In 2021, I could sense my kids were not happy in the concrete jungle, Johnson said.
5Keyshawn Johnson watches USC face Notre Dame in October. Getty ImagesJohnson worked it out with ESPN executives, allowing him to spend two weeks in New York/Bristol per month and two weeks in Los Angeles during football season, while it was three weeks in LA to one in the offseason.
Between his morning radio show, First Take hits and NFL Live, it is unknown when Johnson actually slept.
During this time, Johnson also dealt with tragedy as his firstborn child, Maia, died in the spring of 2022 at the age of 25. Johnson said the cause was fentanyl-laced marijuana.
5Keyshawn Johnson’s tattoo of his daughter Maia. Keyshawn JohnsonShes constantly on my mind, said Johnson, who memorializes Maia with a tattoo on his arm.
Besides not having to constantly fly across the country, there may be growth opportunities at Fox Sports. Johnson appeared twice on Big Noon Kickoff during the college football season. He seems interested in returning to an NFL studio, which could eventually be an option at Fox or elsewhere.
I miss working with Laura Rutledge, said Johnson, referencing the host of NFL Live. I miss working with Dan Orlovsky. I miss with Marcus Spears. I miss working with those guys. I miss working with Jay Williams and all of my radio producers. You know, I miss that because I had a relationship with so many people for 17 years there. But you turn the page and move on.
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