When Stephen A. Smith went off the rails on First Take last Friday, saying that women have a responsibility to not provoke men into attacking them, he was deservingly and roundly criticized (even by ESPN colleagues), and it seemed likely punishment from the network would follow.
After all, the Worldwide Leader has a long history of suspending, firing, or otherwise parting ways with employees who are perceived to hurt their reputation, and they employ enough PR people to run a small city, much less keep tabs on how Smith’s comments (on TV and on Twitter, where he made matters worse) were received. Despite that, though, it took the network two days to offer any statement on Smith, and that statement was essentially “Please tune into First Take Monday for an apology.”
While Smith’s show-opening three-minute apology Monday wasn’t bad in and of itself, the lack of any further discipline for him highlights ESPN’s utter inconsistency on suspensions, leaving observers with the impression that either Smith’s comments aren’t seen as being as problematic as others or that there are special rules for him.
Consider some of the past actions that have led to suspensions or firings of ESPN talent. The Big Lead’s Jason McIntyre posted a rundown of many of them last year. And while that piece isn’t comprehensive (and there are undoubtedly further suspensions never noticed outside Bristol), it gives an idea of what the network has found worrying in the past.
For example, Tony Kornheiser received a two-week suspension (radio and TV) in 2011 for criticizing colleague Hannah Storm’s wardrobe, while Jason Whitlock was permanently banned from appearing on the network (until they hired him last year, that is) in 2006 for criticizing Mike Lupica and The Sports Reporters. Perhaps the most egregious one isn’t listed there; the indefinite suspension Bruce Feldman received in 2011 for helping write Mike Leach’s book (which heavily criticized then-ESPN analyst Craig James), a decision which was called “ESPN’s Waterloo.” Put those next to the inaction on Smith, and it sure seems like the Worldwide Leader cares more about comments that criticize its own personalities than comments found deeply offensive by large numbers of the public.
Another possibility that comes to mind is that there are special rules for certain people at ESPN. That would explain why Keith Olbermann was brought back despite burned bridges, and it would explain why Smith and fellow First Take personality Skip Bayless have been able to get away with so much that wouldn’t fly elsewhere at ESPN, from Smith seeming to drop n-bombs on air in 2011 and 2012 to Bayless fabricating stories about his high school basketball career (neither was punished). First Take as a whole doesn’t seem immune, as former contributor and once-First Take Weekend host Rob Parker’s comments about Robert Griffin III’s white fiancée earned him a 30-day suspension and then a non-renewed contract, but Bayless and Smith have both managed to make plenty of problematic comments without facing corporate punishment. It could be that the network gives them free reign to further the “Embrace Debate” cause.
Both of those scenarios assume an intentional policy that exempts Smith from punishment here, either because his comments aren’t seen as problematic enough or because of his star status.
There’s a third option; perhaps ESPN doesn’t have a consistent overarching policy on suspensions at all and merely makes decisions on an ad hoc basis. Of course, a case-by-case approach might include elements of options #1 and #2 here with Smith’s comments.
While this makes ESPN’s decision to leave Smith alone look inept rather than malevolent, that probably isn’t a desirable outcome for Bristol. When there’s no real plan or blueprint to decide discipline in these instances, it’s very easy for observers to spot the inconsistencies. Ironically enough, it’s the same basic situation facing Roger Goodell and the NFL. Because the NFL has no real policy on suspensions relating to personal conduct, Goodell has stumbled into a situation where he has seemingly said domestic violence and knocking a woman unconscious is a less serious offense than taking the wrong prescription. In theory, ESPN is facing the same questions where they have to be asked about the inconsistencies on their own discipline record.
The one smart thing the Worldwide Leader has done throughout this crisis is not appearing to punish Michelle Beadle for blasting Smith on Twitter, the kind of ESPN-on-ESPN crime that’s often drawn suspensions in the past (see Bill Simmons’ criticisms of First Take). While that’s inconsistent, at least it’s intelligently applied in this case because any notion of silencing or disciplining Beadle would draw a major outcry from every corner of the sports media landscape inside and outside of Bristol.
Yet, allowing Smith to just make an apology and avoid suspension for deeply-offensive and problematic comments means there are still large questions remaining for ESPN.
Do they believe that comments of this type aren’t far enough outside of the realm of “debate” to not be worth punishment, while seemingly much more minor infractions deserve suspension?
Do they believe that Smith brings so much value to the network that he can get away with anything?
The answers to those questions aren’t necessarily yes, but they’re going to keep being asked thanks to the company’s decision here. Smith’s initial comments were damaging enough to ESPN’s reputation in and of themselves, but the way they’ve been handled since are another lasting question mark for the network.