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ESPN’s worst nightmare has come to life thanks to First Take

It was only a matter of time.  Only a matter of time before someone on First Take said something stupid enough to drag the show’s carcass back into the headlines.  This time, it wasn’t Skip Bayless, nor even the ghost of Rob Parker.  It was Stephen A. Smith and his comments on women “provoking” assault.

In case you were away from social media Friday, Smith clumsily talked about women making sure they don’t provoke assault while debating the Ray Rice suspension from the NFL.  That caused ESPN colleague Michelle Beadle to rip Smith and his views on domestic violence on Twitter.

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It could have ended there.  But instead of offering a straight apology and walking away from the matter, Smith only escalated the situation with a lengthy string of tweets trying to explain himself and saying how ANNOYED (all caps) he was with the situation.  SAS later deleted all those tweets, posting a Twitlonger that was a bit more of a real apology, but at least this one is saved for posterity via the manual RT.

In the midst of all of this, Smith was scheduled to make a Philly radio appearance to talk with Mike Missanelli.  Ironically enough, Missanelli was the same meathead who made sexist comments about Michelle Beadle last fall.  If I’m trying to clear the air about comments that angered women, I’m probably not going on the radio with someone who has a noted history of… angering women.  Thankfully, ESPN shut down the interview before the situation got worse.  However, Smith has been the target of follow-up investigations into past questionable comments on women and domestic abuse from his time on First Take that is only increasing the squeeze on him even more.

For her part, Beadle’s reward for daring to be a woman in sports who speaks out honestly about domestic violence was abuse on Twitter from the same group of neanderthals that were abusing Sam Ponder.

It’s now almost a full day after Smith’s initial comments on First Take and 20 hours after Beadle’s comments on Twitter and yet ESPN has remained silent on the matter.  Probably because they are in crisis mode thanks to one of their most recognizable (most promoted) personalities stepping into a hornet’s nest with incendiary remarks.  You can be sure there were a lot of other people at ESPN who wanted to say what Beadle did publicly in criticizing Smith.  However, there are a select few at ESPN who hold the kind of power and leverage to do so on social media.

Why is this ESPN’s worst nightmare?  Because there’s no way out of this controversy that isn’t messy.

Discipline Stephen A. Smith in any way and ESPN admits that not only were his comments out of line, but it’s an admission that once again First Take has failed.  It’s another sign to the sports world that First Take is an embarrassing stain on ESPN’s brand.

Discipline Michelle Beadle for stepping out of line to criticize a co-worker on social media and the network runs the risk of an avalanche of negative publicity for trying to silence a woman speaking out on domestic abuse.  ESPN is not dense enough to do that.  I think.

But by not disciplining Beadle, or giving her “time off” Twitter, the network is invoking a double standard because they suspended Bill Simmons for doing the exact same thing she did – criticizing First Take publicly.  If ESPN doesn’t suspend Beadle, what’s their response to Simmons when he asks why he was punished for speaking out?  So either ESPN runs afoul of one of their top stars who just made a high-profile return from NBC or the most powerful individual talent at the network.  Talk about being between a rock and a hard place.  (Additionally, if Beadle is able to voice her concerns with ESPN programming on social media, what happens to the next person who now feels empowered to do likewise publicly from within Bristol?)

And then there’s always the path of least resistance.  ESPN can sit back and do nothing and let the weekend sweep their problems under the rug.  This, of course, is the least complicated, but optically the worst way out.  By taking no action they implicity endorse not only Smith’s comments, but the destructive trainwreck that is First Take.  By doing nothing or releasing a tepid PR statement and taking no real action, ESPN as a corporate entity would look weak on the very serious subject of domestic abuse, but you could argue the network has already accomplished that with their coverage of the initial Ray Rice suspension news cycle.

What’s the endgame here for ESPN?  There isn’t one.  And that’s what the network fully deserves.

This is the kind of nightmare scenario ESPN has always asked for with First Take.  This is exactly the kind of controversy that ESPN has always welcomed thanks to the mantra of Embrace Debate.  Because when you encourage the kind of behavior that leads your on-air personalities to come up with childish nicknames for athletes, bait them into confrontations, lie about their high school basketball resume, and take credit for victories of professional sports teams, you are creating a toxic environment where episodes like this are inevitable.

When everything gets turned into a forced debate and your entire ethos is based on picking a side and drawing a highly-charged, volatile reaction… then yea, it’s not unreasonable to think one of your professional carnival barkers is going to go on air and discuss how women are at fault for provoking assault when you try to tackle a serious topic.  It’s just part of the long con being played by First Take.

The unfortunate element in all of this is that ESPN has endorsed the polluting of the daily sports conversation thanks to First Take.  They have said to anyone listening that ratings are all that matters and they’re willing to sacrifice the lowest-common-denominatorizing of sports talk and offending any and everyone.  That ESPN doesn’t care if it airs one of the 20 worst shows on television, as long as it makes money.

When Rob Parker called RGIII a “cornball brother,” ESPN promised enhanced editorial oversight for First Take.  In light of that decision, this is what I wrote at the time:

How sincere ESPN is about making those changes and the “enhanced editorial oversight” for First Take will say a lot about Bristol as a whole moving into 2013.  If the show devolves into the same charade we’ve seen for the last year, we’ll know this was only a temporary move done to appease and fend off critics.  If there is real change at First Take and beyond, we’ll know ESPN is serious about preserving their own integrity.

Well, it’s 2014 now.  And as the events of this week proved, First Take is the same charade it’s always been.  And it’s clear ESPN isn’t serious about preserving their own integrity.  At least not yet.

Matt Yoder

About Matt Yoder

Managing Editor of Awful Announcing and award winning sportswriter. Bloguin consigliere. The biggest cat in the whole wide world.

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