Stephen A. Smith signed a new deal with ESPN to continue providing commentary that enrages, excites, illuminates and generates conversation. And for that, it’s a good thing he will be on sports television’s largest platform at least for a few more years.
Smith is good for TV.
There are a lot of talking heads on the “idiot box,” a lot of people offering bluster and shallow views or perspectives that are right down the middle, with no edge. Unmemorable.
And then there is Stephen A.
Love him or dislike him, he provides the kind of perspective that comes from a place of authenticity and always with his heritage in mind.
What Smith shares on First Take or SportsCenter are views and arguments you might hear in the barbershop, only more sophisticated because he has access to information and sources most people, including other journalists, do not have.
When he pontificates on social issues and on racial concerns, you might not agree with him, but he’s always worth a listen.
“Stephen A. is one of the strongest and most distinct voices in sports commentary today, and he will continue to enliven a wide variety of ESPN television and audio offerings with his thought-provoking takes on the news of the day and topical issues where sports and culture intersect,” said John Wildhack, EVP Programming and Production at ESPN.
In other words, the network needs him.
Several years ago, Smith spoke to a group of young men at Morehouse College. It was interesting to watch because at breakfast before the talk, Smith never mentioned the hour-long meeting.
Rather, he talked about life and family and sports and travel. And when he walked into the room on campus, the dynamics of the room changed. The young men sat up, grateful to be in Smith’s presence, and he basked in it.
Smith embraced the unique experience of an HBCU as a student at Winston Salem State and was infused with the cultural pride that comes with it. Being back on a Black college campus mattered to him, and he let his bright-eyed audience know it.
Speaking with no notes, he gave the students what they wanted: humor, insight, inspiration, hope. Smith recounted his road to ESPN, from the Winston Salem Journal to high-school sports reporter at the New York Daily News to covering the Philadelphia 76ers to long-defunct CNN/SI to ESPN.
“I told Spike Lee I was coming to speak to you all and he told me to get on your butts,” Smith started that day. “I told him, ‘I got you.’ So I will start by saying everything I got, I earned. And trust me, it’s going to be harder for you than it was for me, and it was hard for me. You can’t expect anything to be handed to you. You’re young and Black. So, you can’t be average. You can’t be good. You have to be great.
“Remember that you don’t just represent yourself. In everything you do, you’re representing your family, this prestigious college, people who love you. When you see me on TV, you can believe I am aware that I represent my mother and family, my friends and Black people. If you don’t have that mindset, you’ll be selling yourself short.”
Smith has gotten the most of his career, with more to get. The springboard to his ascension might have occurred about 18 years ago, when he covered the 76ers. Superstar guard Allen Iverson did not like something Smith wrote and they did not speak for several days. Finally, Iverson arranged to talk to Smith and they hashed out their difference because Smith had earned Iverson’s respect by not caving in to him. Smith has displayed that kind of strength ever since.
You can find a Smith detractor—many of them, actually—who disagree with his opinions and take his confidence for arrogance or are just rubbed the wrong way by him. Some simply consider him offensive. Ultra-sensitive, Smith continues to learn to listen to the detractors but to not digest their hate.
The reality is that Stephen A. Smith is good for TV. There is no phony in him, no compromising, which has gotten him into some dicey situations. He is provocative, even during these times of extreme political correctness.