The Media Column: Gaffe-prone Stephen A. Smith is imploding before our very eyes

Alex Reimer
March 21, 2019 - 12:18 pm
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Stephen A. Smith is starting to implode before our very eyes. The bombastic, and dare I say borderline iconic, ESPN personality seems to be living in an alternate sports reality, where Hunter Henry played tight end for the Chargers last season and Dwayne Haskins is Michael Vick reincarnated. 

Nobody tunes into Screamin’ A for keen insight and nuance. As a result, he’s granted much more factual leeway than other carnival barkers, who would probably be laughed off their sets if they kept making mistake after mistake after mistake. But this is getting ridiculous. The WorldWide Leader’s signature personality is close to becoming irredeemable. He is more Mike Francesa than Chris Russo, despite their shared penchant for high-pitched caterwauling. 

Smith has always been a caricature, and up to this point, his bluster has been endearing. The way he can make the most mundane sports matters –– should NBA stars sit out regular season games?!?! –– sound like international crises is awe-inspiring. He is a man whom you can imagine screaming about the specials at P.F. Changs, which journalist David J. Roth encapsulated seven years ago.

In a profile about Roth’s seminal tweet, an anonymous ESPN on-air person encapsulated the brilliance of Stephen A.’s ranting and raving. “Stephen A. is an absurd character, but also the most gifted performer on television,” the personality told Dennis Young of The Awl. “He is incredibly good at delivering lines with a gravity that the subject doesn’t deserve. The idea of him reacting to a random obscure menu item like that is the perfect sitcom version of him making his way in a world where everything is so much less important than how he talks about it.”

Smith was made for this viral-based world, where absurdity gets retweeted and shared. “First Take’s” ratings skyrocketed when he was paired with the far less appealing Skip Bayless, and now, a mid-morning yell-fest between two cartoon characters sets the national sports dialogue. Bloggers hungry for clicks aggregate Smith’s latest wild proclamation, and talk show hosts eager for a boogeyman yell about his crazy takes. I am guilty of both. 

Given the reaction Smith elicits, it isn’t surprising ESPN has tried to maximize his reach. In addition to his “First Take” duties, Smith hosts a daily two-hour radio show, appears on the ill-fated “Get Up,” does regular “SportsCenter” hits, and travels with teams during the NBA playoffs. He also shoots breezy feature segments, such as his cozy Q&A with serial woman-beater Floyd Mayweather Jr.

With that kind of schedule, Smith couldn’t possibly function as a semi-normal human being and do things like watch games or read sports articles. Given that he fills out a sport coat nicely and doesn’t have droopy bags under his eyes, it appears he’s chosen to do the former. While that’s probably great for his (relative) sanity, it means he’s woefully uninformed on many topics. He’s had at least three unbelievable football slip-ups over the last four months alone.

In December, Smith told Tedy Bruschi and Max Kellerman to look out for the inactive Hunter Henry (torn ACL) and Derrick Johnson (out of the NFL) in the Thursday night Chargers-Chiefs showdown. Then he proclaimed Dwayne Haskins is a “runner” quarterback, even though the Ohio State stud threw for 50 touchdowns and ran just 79 times for 108 yards. You don’t even have to watch games to know this stuff –– a quick glance at football-reference will do.

Earlier this month, it seems like Stephen A. didn’t read the football-reference page closely enough. While eviscerating the Redskins’ lack of QB stability, he said punter Tress Wayne –– I’m sorry, “some guy Tress Wayne” –– had started a game last season. Except, that didn’t happen. Wayne just threw one pass. 

The latest egregious factual error came this week, when Smith asked Jeff Passan how Mike Trout’s mega-contract affects Angels manager Mike Scioscia, who is no longer with the team. Brad Ausmus is the Angels’ new skipper. (Actually, in fairness, I thought Scioscia was still manager of the Angels, too.)

On top of those faux pas, Mr. “Embrace Debate” seems like he just wants to live in an echo-chamber these days. Smith recently insinuated the Celtics were playing Gordon Hayward so much because he’s white, and then doubled down, saying he would prefer to have a white superstar if he owned an NBA team, too.

Oh, and Smith also took a shot at the dearly departed Kirk Minihane, appearing to suggest Kirk and Tom Brady were involved in some sort of same-sex relationship. Kirk questioned Smith about his Mayweather fixation 18 months ago, and Smith still seems hung up on it, probably because he’s rarely challenged.

It would be healthy for Stephen A. to step out of his bubble, or at the least, take some time off and actually have a nice dinner at PF Chang’s. ESPN is running its main man into the ground.

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Not surprising Kraft has been used as symbol: It’s been four weeks since Robert Kraft was charged with two misdemeanor counts of soliciting prostitution. And the scathing op-eds and petitions continue to be drafted on a daily basis. 

This week, 84 anti-sexual exploitation groups and sex trade survivors signed onto a petition drafted by the National Center on Sexual Exploitation calling on the NFL to ban Kraft for his misstep. In the words of Bomani Jones, this is a stunt. While the demand to expunge Kraft from the league is absurd, the groups get their message out there. They are using Kraft’s name, much like the Florida authorities when they cavalierly attached Kraft to human trafficking. 

Regardless of the case’s outcome, Kraft’s reputation has taken a beating. There’s lots of good that comes with owning the Patriots and sporting net worth of $6.6 billion. This episode is an example of the bad. 

MLB opts to hold invisible Opening Day: Most sports league like to showcase their first games of the season. MLB prefers they exist in the shadows. 

The Mariners and A’s have already played two regular season games in Japan. Just like that, we’re off to the races, and you didn’t even know it. 

In the grand scheme of things, the lack of an Opening Day filled with pageantry isn’t that significant. It’s just another example of how baseball can’t harness the fleeting attention of a nation that’s always dying to jump onto the next thing.

NESN gets in the sports gambling TV business: Starting next month, NESN will begin airing a daily three-hour sports gambling show. “Follow the Money,” which is produced by the Vegas Stats & Information Network (VSiN). It’s another reminder of how sports betting shows, content, and ads are going to soon become ubiquitous in every aspect of our sporting lives. 

I spoke recently with VSiN CEO Brian Musburger about the program and why he thinks it will be successful in Boston –– and even attract non-sports betters. “Follow the Money” will air every day at 10:00 a.m. in April. 

Alex Reimer: You said you think this is the ‘strongest morning show in the country.’ Why?

Brian Musburger: “It’s completely unique. The relationships these guys have with different line originators and the people they’re talking to gives the basis for really informed conversation that’s of interest to people who have money on the line. I also think the guys are really entertaining and have unique opinions. It’s a strong combination of guys with great information and who crack me up.”

AR: Why would someone like me, who isn’t interested in sports gambling, watch this show?

BM: “Even if you’re not betting on the games, these aren’t guys who are taking an opinion just to have a hot take. These are informed decisions. When you’re talking about what people are doing with their money, people are going to have an informed opinion. It’s not guys taking sides to have another debate show. These guys believe it, there’s some conviction there.”

AR: Why is now the right time for a show like this to air in Boston and throughout New England?

BM: “I think Massachusetts is going to get its act together on this pretty quickly. Legalized gambling is coming across the country and people need to learn from the guys who have immersed themselves in it. The way I discussed Mitch (Moss) and Paul (Howard) was talking to Jimmy Vacarro. I came out to Vegas when we started VSiN, and asked him, ‘Who are the guys who have interviewed you who truly understand the space? Who gets it?’ The first guys he gave me were Mitch and Paul. They had been working separately. He said they’re absolute knuckleheads, but they know what they’re talking about.” 

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