For years, I thought that sports journalist Stephen A. Smith was all style and no substance. Now I’m realizing that I was giving him too much credit.
The style part is admirable. Look at that use of the middle initial and how he branded himself with it; he used to have a blog at stephena.com. Also, he emerged in the late ‘90s a time when there were several Steve Smiths in the NBA and NFL. I figured he was pretty smart to use Stephen. Finally his visual style was compelling; the dour look when he lowered his eye lids while still looking at the camera and the modulations in his voice struck me as savvy as Chris Paul’s change of speeds in his dribbling which freezes defenders every time. And no one in sports journalism puckers their lips more in the routine disagreement of a player’s contract negotiations than Stephen A.
I didn’t much care that he seemed to be talking loud and saying nothing. No one in their right mind tunes into to listen to a sports journalist on TV for wisdom and insight; that’s why blogs exist. Smith was good at being entertaining and occasionally he was the blind squirrel who found the nut. He was the first to forecast that LeBron James and Chris Bosh would join Dwyane Wade in Miami in 2010.
For the most part, I figured he had a big podium and nothing to say.
Wrong. Let him loose on a subject like domestic violence and all hell breaks loose. On last Friday's First Take, Smith began to comment on the pathetically light penalty—a two game suspension–of Ray Rice for knocking his then fiancé/now-wife Janay Palmer out in an Atlantic City hotel room. Rather than directing his outrage at the league for condoning an off field culture of sociopathic violence and failing to demand that the men who make millions and millions of dollars by playing football adhere to the same set of standards that oh say, my mailman does, Smith took the quixotic path of saying we need to teach women not to provoke violence.
You’d like to think that some producer might have decided that an unscheduled commercial break could save everyone a lot of grief. Instead, Smith got in a hole and kept digging.
…and digging. He later tweeted then deleted the following post, “In no way was I accusing a women of being wrong. I was simply saying what that preventive measures always need to be addressed because there's only but so much that can be done after the fact….once the damage is already done. Nothing more.”
He also apologized to fellow ESPN anchor Michelle Beadle, who called out the trouble with his words on her own Twitter account. He fell a few billion short of those who deserve an apology for his repugnant ideas (aka "all women.")
The thing is that everyone that works with Smith should have seen this fiasco coming. In 2012, when former all-pro wide receiver Chad Johnson was accused of head butting his then wife Evelyn Lozada, Smith spent nearly four minutes accusing Lozada of being everything short of a gold digger.
On Monday’s show, Smith spent the first three minutes of First Take offering a seemingly heartfelt apology for his words last week. Smith called his remarks “the most egregious mistake of my career.” He said that it wasn’t his intent to say that domestic violence is a woman’s fault, and added, “The failure to clearly articulate what I meant lies squarely on my shoulders.” He went on to say that “to apologize doesn’t do the matter its proper justice.”
Then Smith said he has spoken out repeatedly against domestic violence on First Take, though Evelyn Lozada would likely disagree. Host Cari Champion accepted the apology, noting that in certain intimate matters words like “provoke” take on great meaning, and she expressed her dismay with the brevity of Rice’s suspension. Then the show shifted gears to discussing what LeBron James’s jersey number in Cleveland should be. The abrupt change to light subject matter surely offended some of those who felt that Smith should have been punished or that, at the very least, the show should have spent a bit of time discussing the issue of domestic violence.
Evidently ESPN wasn’t satisfied with the apology (or perhaps there was pressure from fans and/or advertisers), because after dawdling for a couple of days, the network suspended Smith for a week. Reaction to this fiasco were largely predictable (from Deadspin’s snark, to frequent defender-of-bad-male-behavior Whoopi Goldberg stating on The View that she understood Smith and that if a woman hits a man she should expect to be hit back.)
While it remains to be seen if Stephen A. Smith has actually learned anything about domestic violence, its root causes and what doesn’t cause men to strike women (provocation), it seems likely that the host will probably put a guard over that dour pucker before sharing such a controversial opinion in the future. The ball is still in ESPN’s court and if they really want to prove their dedication to female audiences, they may not want to let the conversation end here.