Last month, social media was hit with a tidal wave in the form of Lil Nas X’s “Old Town Road.” The general consensus for the viral country trap track, turned record-breaking smash? It slaps. Ask Shannon Sharpe, and he’ll offer a different perspective.
“Country and rap don’t go together,” the Glenville, Georgia native asserts. “That’s like putting gravy on ice cream.”
Sharpe typically saves his spicier takes for Undisputed, the daily sports debate show he co-hosts with Skip Bayless on Fox Sports 1. However, he can’t help but throw shade at the Billboard No. 1 hit as it blasts through an idyllic home in Culver City, Los Angeles. It’s the site where the Hall of Fame tight end joined Complex for an interview and photoshoot, just hours after his live Undisputed taping.
“Skip and I only speak in production meetings... When we pass each other in the hall, we nod and keep going. yeah, it’s a Heavyweight FighT."
Instead of donning one of his trademark three-piece suits (there are Pinterest boards dedicated to his ability to get a fit off) Shannon pulls up to the house in a gray sweatsuit and black durag. He looks like a combination of locker room LeBron and Uncle Shannon, the alter ego he unleashed with whom the internet has fallen in love.
“Everybody has that one uncle who's gonna tell stories, gonna keep you laughing the entire cookout,” Shannon remarks of the character. “But you like, ‘Man, I’ll sure be glad when he leaves.’”
Rather than greeting the crew with some Yac and Milds, as Uncle Shay perhaps would, Shannon offers a warm hello and makes a point to shake everyone’s hand. He’s reserved, but walks confidently and with purpose, his shoulders so broad they seem artificially constructed.
The (somehow) 50-year-old quickly changes into his first outfit for the shoot—a blue Champion hoodie and gray shorts—again, a departure from the suit we’ve grown accustomed to him flexing.
“When you dress up like I do for a living all the time, five days a week, two-and-a-half hours a day, that’s the last thing you want to wear,” he says.
The former NFLer reveals that his wardrobe consists of 75 suits, 40 jackets, and 30 pairs of slacks, all of which are stored in a bedroom (there are too many to fit in a closet!). And that’s the tally after he recently gave 30 suits to his uncle, a minister. An on-brand move for Sharpe since back in March he gifted his brother Sterling $300,000 for essentially being a great older sibling.
As for Shannon’s 800-pair sneaker collection? The insane volume is better attributed to want than necessity. “I’ve got shoe boxes stacked almost to the ceiling,” he says of his Atlanta home.
The Sneaker Shopping alum is so obsessed with copping the latest heat that he refuses to open the Nike SNKRS app until the weekend. He knows he’ll go too ham.
“My hope is that by Tuesday, Thursday, or Friday they've already sold out and I won't be able to get them.”
Discipline is woven into the fabric of Shannon’s being, as evidenced by his rigid daily schedule. He wakes up at 3:15 a.m. every morning, works out twice a day, does hours of prep for his show, and eats carefully measured meals (à la Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson). Where exactly does his discipline and diligence come from? Consider his upbringing.
Shannon was raised with his two siblings (Sterling and Libby), as well as his grandparents and their nine children, in a tiny cinder-block house in Tison, Georgia. Summers were sweltering, the concrete floors frigid in the winter, and needless to say, space was limited.
“I NEVER THOUGHT I WAS BETTER THAN ANYONE. AND EVEN THOUGH I’M FORTUNATE NOW, I DON’T THINK I’M BETTER THAN ANYONE.”
The family had very little money, so Shannon took on a number of odd jobs as a kid—including catching chickens, picking pecans, and clipping onions. He’d make $27.50 a week, approximately $8 of which were spent at the corner store on honey buns and soda, and a few dollars were allocated to buying Izod shirts.
“I was styling at a very, very young age,” he recalls. “Just on a budget.”
Given that hundreds of thousands of Americans grow up the way he did—poor, black, in the rural south—his ability to escape (and prosper) was remarkable. Fortunately for Shannon, he could leverage supreme athletic talents and a tremendous work ethic to make it to the NFL, enjoying a 14-year, three-time Super Bowl winning career.
Yet most people under the age of 20 only know Shannon as one of the faces of Undisputed; the hyper-expressive and unabashedly candid “lip sparring” partner of the Godfather of modern day sports debate, Skip Bayless. Ask Shay how he feels about gen Z’s obliviousness to his (nearly) GOAT tight end status and, well...just insert the hilariously high-pitched and hypnotizing, “That ain’t no problem” meme.
Skip hand-picked Shannon to be his co-host in 2016, just two years after Sharpe was let go from his CBS analyst job on The NFL Today. The selection was unprecedented, as all major sports debate personalities had, up until that point, some kind of journalism background.
“I was the first athlete that did this full time,” Shannon reflects. “And [Skip] believed that I could do it. No one else believed.”
In the three years they’ve been going head-to-head, the duo has developed a remarkable chemistry, built on mutual respect and competition.
“Skip and I only speak in production meetings. Once we leave the meeting, we don't ride the elevator together,” Shannon explains. “When we pass each other in the hall, we just nod and keep going. Oh yeah, it’s a heavyweight fight.”
A major source of their competitive fire burns from their infamously disparate feelings toward LeBron James. Shannon represents the ultimate LBJ stan, wearing a goat mask on live television several times in his honor (and to troll the man across the desk). Skip, meanwhile, has earned his living as the immovable, unapologetically staunch LeBron hater. When asked if he ever grows legitimately frustrated by his partner’s stubbornness—as many viewers do—Shannon points to the show’s format.
“[Skip and I] are in court. I’m not trying to convince him that I’m right and he’s wrong. Put it this way, the defense attorney’s not trying to convince the prosecution you didn’t do it. He’s trying to convince the jury. You guys at home, you’re the jury.”
He continues: “I just ask Skip, is that where you wanna stand? Is this the hill you want me to bury you on?”
“THE [MEMES] COME SO QUICK. I’M LIKE, 'DUDE, CAN Y’ALL LET ME GET OFF THE SHOW FIRST? I AIN’T BOTHERING NOBODY.'"
Shannon was a criminal justice major in college, so the courtroom metaphor is particularly appropriate. In fact, the Savannah State University grad reveals that had he never made it to the NFL, he would have pursued a career as a lawyer. With Bayless serving as wily prosecutor, so adept at using anyone’s words against them in the court of sports, Shannon couldn’t have chosen a better area of study.
It isn’t just Skip who Shannon argues with on a consistent basis. He chops it up with people on the street, the dudes at his local Whole Foods, and will even throw himself into the shark-infested waters of social media. While many celebrities avoid clapping back at the malicious mentions, Shannon isn’t afraid to put Twitter trolls on blast. In fact, he enjoys the conversation.
“I love giving people an opportunity to ask me a question because I understand the likelihood they’re never gonna meet me, personally,” he explains. “It’s funny because people look at me the way I look at LeBron or Denzel. I’d want those guys to respond to me, so I get it.”
Perhaps the biggest test of relatability for celebs is how they respond to memes created in their (dis)honor. Since the summer of 2018, Shannon has faced the gauntlet, after uttering the infamous words “That ain’t no problem” in succession three times, hitting a note so high he appeared to catch himself off-guard. A week later, “Whoa, whoa, whoa. WHOAAAA” erupted from his mouth; his eyes widening so much by the final “Whoa” you’d think he saw the ghost of Miami LeBron’s past. The internet lost its mind.
To this day, the memes continue to roll out at such a torrid pace that even their subject can’t keep up.
“They come so quick,” Shannon reflects with a laugh. “Now I’m like, ‘Dude, can y’all let me get off the show first? I ain’t bothering nobody, I’m just tryna do my job. At least let me get home first.’”
"I admire and respect what [Stephen A.] has accomplished. He’s good at what he does… I hope That eventually people think I’m as good.”
Of course, there’s another famous sports personality who can’t escape the memes—Stephen A. Smith. A lot of people compare him and Shay since they work on rival shows, are two outspoken, influential black men in a predominantly white industry, and remain constant targets on Twitter. It begs the question, does Shannon feel competitive with the ESPN mainstay?
“To [his] show yes, but I’m not competing against Stephen A. I understand the comparisons. We’re both passionate black men, we can be loud. I admire and respect what he has accomplished. He's good at what he does... I hope that eventually people think I'm as good."
As for his goals and aspirations beyond the debate desk, Shannon admits he would gladly appear in Space Jam 2 with LeBron "if they called me.” However, his primary focus is to (along with Skip) elevate Undisputed to heights that debate shows have never seen before.
It’s fitting his final words—his parting shots—echo the late Bernie Mac, another amazingly entertaining, funny, and trailblazing black figure.
“I'm an ordinary guy with an extraordinary job.”
All of the outfits worn by Shannon Sharpe, featured in this article, can be purchased in store or online at bloomingdales.com.
Styling by Khalid Briggs.
Grooming by Ariana Blean.