How Stephen A. Smith Got His Revenge

How Stephen A. Smith Got His Revenge

His memoir, Straight Shooter—a reflection on his life, his victories, and his defeats—gives an inside look into how the ESPN personality remade sports journalism in his image.


Humiliation is the central theme of Stephen A. Smith’s memoir, Straight Shooter. Underneath the fame, the chart-topping sports shows, the controversies and arguments, and the ability to talk and talk about all things for so long that his interlocutors can barely get a word in, there exists a man who still remembers—and carries with him wherever he goes—all the ways that he was humiliated as a child.

The first humiliation for Smith was being held back in third grade. He went to summer school. Then, at the end of his fourth-grade year, he was held back a second time. He writes that even now, as an adult, he can still hear the jokes and the laughter of the other kids in the neighborhood about his failure.

Even worse than the laughter of other children—and what, for Smith, was the deepest humiliation—was the response from his father, Ashley. As the young Stephen sat on the back-porch steps of his childhood home and cried after finding out that he’d be repeating another grade, he overheard his father talking with his mother, Janet. While she was worried and looking for a solution to his difficulties, his father said, “Give it up, the boy just ain’t smart. He’s not going anywhere.”

By Smith’s own admission, humiliation drives his life and especially his public image. As he writes in the introduction of the book, his is the story of “a kid motivated by ‘friends’ in the neighborhood incessantly humiliating him…. It’s about a grown man who still remembers each name, each face, each laugh, to this very day, more than four decades later—despite my success and notoriety.”

Reading these words, I thought of the Swedish film director Ingmar Bergman, who told an interviewer in 1973:

One of the strongest feelings I remember from my childhood is, precisely, of being humiliated; of being knocked about by words, acts, or situations…. Our whole education is just one long humiliation, and it was even more so when I was a child. One of the wounds I’ve found hardest to bear in my adult life has been the fear of humiliation, and the sense of being humiliated.

The word “auteur” might not be the first one we reach for when we think of Smith, but how else might we describe a man who reinvented a form, for better or worse? Talking about sports will never be the same after Stephen A. He has remade himself, and the field of sports journalism, through resentment and provocation, and in doing so, he’s become one of the highest-paid sports media personality as well as one of its most loathed.

Smith was born in the Bronx in 1967, the youngest of six children. When he was 1, the family moved to Hollis, Queens, a mostly Black working-class neighborhood, where Smith grew up in poverty and around violence and drugs. Hollis would go on to become famous as the home of many of rap’s early pioneers and superstars: Run-DMC, Russell Simmons, and LL Cool J.

Smith’s father and mother had met in St. Thomas and got married when they were teenagers; his mother was already pregnant with his oldest sister, Linda. Then they moved to New York in the early ’60s and had the rest of their children. At first, Ashley Smith worked as the manager of a hardware store while Janet stayed home to raise the kids—but as Smith writes, when he was around 6 years old, his father “checked out” and stopped working completely, spending most of his time watching sports or old westerns on TV instead. Janet then went to school to become a nurse, eventually becoming the assistant head nurse at Queens General Hospital while also taking on shifts at a nursing home. Smith’s mother worked constantly to carry the load for the whole family.

The most interesting part of Smith’s story comes before he became a controversial figure on TV. As you would expect, there is plenty of behind-the-scenes intrigue in the chapters in Straight Shooter about his career at ESPN, from his initial hiring to his being let go after rejecting a contract extension and then rehired through the efforts of Dave Roberts, who was then the general manager of 1050 ESPN Radio, as well as Smith’s pairing with Skip Bayless, which resulted in a formidable on-screen duo, and his reshaping of the sports media landscape on First Take. In the grand scheme of things—and especially in the context of sports media—that part of Smith’s life is the most consequential. But what makes the young Stephen more sympathetic and interesting is that he is at the mercy of a world that’s bigger than him.

Smith suffered his father’s mistreatment of his mother and his family, his brother Basil’s death, and the force of the poverty that followed him for most of his young life. In the book, it seems that every time he takes a step forward, another horrible event pushes him back, and then he has to crawl up a different path and reimagine himself and his future as he does so.

It’s easy to sympathize and forgive the younger Stephen, but as Straight Shooter lurches toward the present and becomes a catalog of Smith’s career victories and his reflections on his time as one of the world’s most popular sports commentator, something shifts. Smith comes to recognize that there’s something inherently cynical about being a talking head and proudly exploits it: What’s important isn’t the quality of his commentary, or the righteousness or intelligence of the positions he takes; instead, the most important thing is to constantly provoke the audience.

The creation of First Take remade the world of sports media, which Smith admits unnerved his bosses and colleagues at ESPN, who initially saw a show centered around partisan debate as tarnishing a brand known for (mostly) sober news and analysis. There had been ESPN shows before where argument was part of the structure, and where hosts and guests had taken explosive or controversial positions, but that was First Take’s entire ethos and appeal: One person takes a position, the other adopts the opposing extreme, and then they yell at each other about it while, hopefully, remaining friends.

After First Take, being as loud and obnoxious as possible became the conventional mode of athletic discourse. The legacies of players and teams are now considered and reconsidered after each performance: Someone is either trash or the greatest, and changing one’s position or being level-headed about the topic became a weakness. This works when the topics remain within sports, but it can be dangerous when it comes to issues bigger than what happens on the fields and the courts.

Smith acknowledges that he’s screwed up at least three times on-air. The first came during a discussion about whether Major League Baseball was reluctant to promote Japanese-born all-star Shohei Ohtani as the face of the game. Smith’s position was that it didn’t help that Ohtani needed an interpreter. Later, after finding out that Ohtani used an interpreter so that there would be no confusion in his answers, and after many people from the Asian American community and others complained, he publicly apologized. He writes, “Since I clearly wasn’t thinking enough about the magnitude of such words when I spoke them earlier, I definitely wasn’t going to make that mistake again.”

The second time came with his reaction to tweets by Stephen Curry’s wife, Ayesha Curry, after the Golden State Warriors lost the sixth game of the 2016 NBA finals. In a heated Twitter post, Ayesha called the game “rigged.” The next morning, Smith—who had been told by John Skipper, then the president of ESPN, that he was in line to become the new prime-time host of Sportscenter—naturally took a stance opposing Bayless, who had no problem with Curry’s reaction. Smith began by contrasting Ayesha with Lebron James’s wife, Savannah, positioning the latter as the more respectable figure. Then he said, “Ain’t a man alive, particularly a Black man, that’s going to look at LeBron James’s wife and not say that that woman ain’t wonderful inside and out. She never tweets and goes out there and calls out the league and stuff like that…. Nobody is more scrutinized than her husband. But yet she thinks about how she represents him. As a result, she doesn’t do that.”

Ayesha Curry didn’t react well to his comments; nor did a multitude of others, especially women, and Black women in particular. The women at ESPNW went to Skipper to object to Smith’s comments. Rob King, a senior VP, told Smith bluntly that it was a bad look for him, and Smith eventually lost the opportunity to host Sportscenter, which he continues to blame on the incident.

The third time, which for Smith remains one of his greatest humiliations in adulthood, came from his comments about Ray Rice, a former running back for the Baltimore Ravens. In February 2014, Rice was captured on a surveillance video dragging the unconscious body of his then fiancée and now wife, Janay Palmer, out of an elevator in an Atlantic City casino. It was an act of domestic violence that led the NFL to impose a two-game suspension on Rice that July.

A few months later, TMZ released a second video that showed what had occurred before the first one, in which Rice could be seen punching and knocking out Palmer before leaving the elevator. The NFL and its commissioner, Roger Goodell, came under fire for the meager two-game suspension by a range of people, from women’s groups to politicians, after which the league suspended Rice indefinitely.

After the suspension was announced, Bayless took a position that condemned domestic violence, while Smith decided to take an opposing stance, in which he began by saying, “There is never an excuse to put your hands on a woman.” Then, in his usual style, he launched into his hot take:

“But at the same time, we also have to make sure that we learn as much as we can about elements of provocation. Not that there’s real provocation, but the elements of provocation, you’ve got to make sure that you address them because we’ve got to do what we can to try and prevent the situation from happening in any way. And I don’t think that’s broached enough, is all I’m saying. No point of blame.”

Smith was forced to apologize by ESPN and then suspended. He insists in Straight Shooter that his words were misunderstood, that he wasn’t condoning domestic violence, and that many of the attacks on him afterward were inspired by the envy people felt for him. In his own words, “Folks love to hate the player when they can’t play the game.” But in that same chapter, he also pinpoints the problem with the format of his show and the self-made trap that he fell into: “Skip said what he’d said already, what was I going to add to the conversation?”

This is probably the only time in the book that Smith comes close to examining himself as the loudest voice in sports media. He writes extensively about his journey to the top, the humiliations and obstacles that he faced along the way, the setbacks he encountered and the enemies he made, and the millions of dollars he earned that he never imagined he would make—but he never truly wrestles with the impact that he’s had on sports media.

That impact is more than just a partisan-fueled debate show. Along with Bayless, Smith has transformed the way that networks cover sports as well as the way that fans engage with what they’re watching. The landscape now, on the big networks and on social media, is filled with people making extreme claims about athletes and teams, or asking ridiculous questions to get anyone to listen. Everyone wants to be Stephen A.

Toward the end of March 2023, Smith did an interview with Dan Le Batard on the latter’s South Beach Sessions podcast. Le Batard is a former employee of ESPN and was known during his time there as one of its most intelligent, insightful, and (like Smith) provocative personalities. He had his own share of professional troubles with ESPN, but whereas Smith was reprimanded for making offensive comments about domestic violence, and criticized for what he said about Ohtani and Ayesha Curry, Le Batard would often get in trouble for speaking up on the side of minority groups and indicting ESPN in the process. He consistently broke the network’s rule on not speaking about politics and condemned ESPN for its mealy-mouthed stance on what he saw as important issues.

After speaking about the impact of First Take and the partnership between Smith and Bayless, Le Batard said, “I hate what you two have done to sports television.” The statement riled Smith, who got on his own bully pulpit. He said that Le Batard was in no position to talk because he’d had his own ESPN show as well, which also had to appeal to the fans.

In the middle of his rant, Smith agreed with Le Batard’s point without seeming to realize it, saying about the debate format for shows: “Yes. That existed before we ever came along. That’s what I’m saying. We didn’t create it. We saw what was there and we maximized it to the best of our ability.” But what Smith refused to speak on is whether we should rethink how we talk about sports or if the model he has done so much to popularize is the best one we can have.

Le Batard tried to push him to consider what it says about his show that when a former cohost, Max Kellerman, offered nuance, it was seen as a detriment. In response, Stephen summarized his ethos and the ethos of his show: “I’m actually surprised that you are missing the boat, Dan…it’s not about us, it’s about the money.”

Smith’s guiding principle in any conversation isn’t to add something worthwhile—at least not anymore. The positions that he takes aren’t necessarily dishonest, because he doesn’t have to believe them‚ but he is blatantly dishonest in the sense that he will take whatever position is available to counter the person opposite him. It’s not that what he says doesn’t matter—but it only matters to the extent that it is all purely in service of the market.

What the market wants is a reaction, and no one else is as good as getting those reactions as Stephen A. Smith is. He is right that he didn’t actually create the format, but he embraced it and redefined it to the point that he is the quintessential personality of modern sports journalism. Though that time could be coming to an end: ESPN recently laid off a number of its on-air hosts and commentators, including big names like Jeff Van Gundy, Suzy Kolber, Jalen Rose, and Max Kellerman. Smith managed to survive, at least for the present, and on his radio show after the news broke, he said, “Let’s deal with reality. This ain’t the end. More is coming. And yes, ladies and gentlemen, I could be next.”

Smith wasn’t next. He survived and has even convinced Shannon Sharpe to jump ship from a rivaling show on Fox Sports co-hosted by Bayless and join him on ESPN—further solidifying his spot at the top of the sports talk show world. For now, First Take will continue to dominate sports conversations. But one wonders if sports journalism should start to imagine what life looks like after First Take, a world where everyone isn’t trying to be Stephen A. Smith.

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