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Our Strange New Respect for Stephen A. Smith

The ESPN personality formerly known as the Most Hated Man in Sports Media has become something altogether new: a star we can agree on

Adam Villacin

Last week, Stephen A. Smith won two debates. The first Smith won in a rout. The $8 million a year contract he got from ESPN is proof that he’s the most important employee at the network, if not all of sports TV. “I consider me the American Dream,” Smith tweeted.

Smith won the second debate by virtual forfeit. Sure, he may confuse an NFL punter with a quarterback or cheerfully throw an ESPN colleague like Baxter Holmes under the bus. But there was almost no backlash to Smith’s contract. For a guy who was once the most polarizing man on sports TV, reactions to Smith now land somewhere between wary admiration and full-blown love. There’s a political term for that kind of turnaround. America has Strange New Respect for Stephen A.

To understand how wild this is, go back to 2005. Smith was a Philadelphia Inquirer columnist who’d just landed his first ESPN show. It was the time of the first great Stephen A. panic. A dozen think pieces asked: “Is this man the future of sports media?!”

Some of the panic was straightforwardly racial. The New York Post’s Phil Mushnick accused Smith of speaking to “urban street blacks or white street wannabes.” Another part emerged from the way Smith seemed to be bidding goodbye to the age of newspapers. He thumbed out his Inquirer column on a BlackBerry (a crime in 2005, a skill a few years later). He had no interest in reproducing newspaper gentility on TV. Sports Illustrated called Smith’s rise “the final triumph of bluster and confidence over content, of point of view over facts, of opinion over objectivity.” Years later, a Hartford Courant writer sighed: “We are not Red Smith. We are Stephen A. Smith.”

For a guy who was supposedly reshaping the profession in his own image, Smith took a long time to achieve liftoff. His first show, Quite Frankly, was canceled. In 2009, ESPN decided to not renew Smith’s contract; two years later, the network brought him back. Smith didn’t become a true soloist until 2016, when Skip Bayless left ESPN for FS1. Smith rejiggered First Take around his own obsessions (“You ain’t going to hear about Tim Tebow every day”) and, with Max Kellerman, thumped Bayless in the ratings. According to media writer Michael McCarthy, Bayless is now entertaining the idea of a reunion.

As the new king of ESPN, Smith is the same opinionator he always was. We’re only five years removed from Smith suggesting, after Ray Rice’s arrest, that victims of domestic violence shouldn’t “provoke” their abusers. Last December, he predicted that a key matchup in an NFL game would involve a tight end who was out for the season and a linebacker who was out of the league. In April, Smith admitted he was an “ignorant fool” for saying Dwayne Haskins was primarily a running quarterback.

These days, Smith powers through such gaffes and the inevitable tweets they produce. Barry Petchesky, who has plenty of queasiness about Smith’s act, wrote about the pleasures of listening to one of his rants. Last year, Vinson Cunningham profiled Smith in The New Yorker. Like David Remnick’s 1997 profile of Howard Stern, it was official confirmation of Smith as a personality that smart people consume, (mostly) without embarrassment.

How Smith became near bulletproof is fascinating. Part of it is the normal process that happens when TV people get famous, and reporters swap out engagement with their work for ratings reports and contract updates.

But this undersells how good Smith is at the performative parts of opinion TV. We focus on him when he’s in high rant mode, but watch the divinely sheepish way he took his lumps from Marcus Spears after LSU beat Alabama. Way back in 2005, The New York Times’ Richard Sandomir noted that Smith was at his most watchable when he wasn’t speaking, when he wore a sly smile or skeptical frown. Smith explained then: “Somebody is saying something I don’t agree with and I have 45 seconds. I’m like, ‘Damn it, can I fit it all in?’”

The idea that Smith was crowding out “respectable” sportswriters—an idea revived during the ESPN layoffs—has more or less vanished. When I talk to ESPN reporters—the ones who still have jobs—they’re pretty Zen about the idea that First Take and other shows were subsidizing their work. After the gutting of shops like Deadspin and Sports Illustrated, few sportswriters would refuse a job because Smith worked in the same corporate biosphere.

Though he’s no longer a reporter per se, Smith maintains more reporterly cred than any other TV opinionator. “I’m a personality with credentials,” he told Cunningham. Getting Magic Johnson to call out Rob Pelinka on the same day the Lakers announced Frank Vogel’s hiring was a coup most NBA writers would have been proud of.

At the height of the Stephen A. panic, there was a fear that sports TV would fill up with similar take artists. Despite numerous stand-ins (Rob Parker, Nick Wright, Kellerman), this hasn’t happened to nearly the degree many thought. Last year, ESPN replaced SC6 with regular SportsCenter. High Noon’s future is unclear. Get Up got better when Smith made it his green room. What looked like the dawn of the age of argument has turned out to be mostly the dawn of the age of Stephen A. He is now the genre’s grand old man.

Smith’s appeal is helped by the fact that he became social media content, which sanded off his rough edges and made him a figure of fun. On Twitter, he morphed from a hapless user to a memeable figure to someone (with the prodding of ESPN’s social team) who leaned into self-caricature—the Al Pacino of sports TV. Social media, not TV, may be Smith’s ideal medium, because he can unleash a monologue without worrying about the artifice of a sports debate.

Smith also got lucky that the awfulness of the Knicks gave him a canvas for endless, wounded performances. Before his cri de coeur about the Knicks’ lottery draw (22,000 retweets and counting), there was his campaign against Phil Jackson. “There’s genuine emotion behind these Knicks takes,” Deadspin noted.

The problem with opinion TV is nobody believes anyone cares that much, and at that volume, about every story in sports. Smith’s greatest skill as an opinionator—and a key to renaissance—is that he makes us suspend our disbelief that every team on planet Earth could be part of his personal psychodrama.

On Monday, I flipped on Smith’s radio show. “I’m already disgusted!” he said. In the first segment, he proceeded to machine-gun the Knicks front office, the Jets and Giants (“I don’t give a damn what they did yesterday!”), the Cowboys (“They might not even make the damn playoffs!”), and (why not?) Alabama receiver Jerry Jeudy. There was a time when those kinds of takes were seen as all that was wrong with sports media. In the age of Strange New Respect, if anybody noticed, they were probably saluting Stephen A.’s commitment to the bit.