While ESPN’s headline editors are embracing Stephen A. Smith’s trolling, Smith himself seems annoyed that his comments cause controversies. On Tuesday’s First Take, Smith and Skip Bayless discussed why Cam Newton is criticized and Rob Gronkowski isn’t, with both concluding it’s more about likability than race, and Smith then went on to complain about how TNT’s Charles Barkley gets away with more controversial comments than Smith himself:

“Charles Barkley says stuff that — I love him, but he’ll say stuff that one would deem controversial all the time,” Smith said. “It gets laughed off.”

“It’s just Charles being Charles. Let Stephen A. say it, and oh, it’s going to be a problem. Ok? And it ain’t going to be a laughing matter either. And I can — I could say exactly what Charles Barkley says, verbatim, but if it comes out of my mouth, it’s a different ballgame. That’s all I’m trying to say.”

As SportsGrid’s Jake O’Donnell notes, though, this carries plenty of similarities to the Newton/Gronkowski discussion Bayless and Skip had; Barkley’s likability compared to Smith’s certainly is part of why comments from him are perceived differently. Some of it also would seem to be the motivations for comments; Barkley’s outrageous at times, sure, such as his recent claim that “Steph Curry is not more than a shooter,” but his comments seem to be mostly saying what he thinks, and he’s said himself that he’s not an expert. By contrast, many of Smith’s takes seem manufactured to push buttons and draw a reaction. It’s not really that surprising that they draw more critical reactions than Barkley’s. (Also, why is Smith complaining about provoking controversies? Isn’t that First Take’s entire reason for existence? And why does he want to be able to make more controversial comments when he already seems to be able to get away with a lot?)

It’s also worth considering the different stages and networks Smith and Barkley operate on. TNT’s Inside The NBA is freeform enough that a Barkley digression on CNN and Donald Trump isn’t that far out of place, while ESPN is so adamantly anti-politics (hello, Win Butler!) that Smith making similar comments to Barkley would probably draw punishment from the network. (Although, maybe not; Smith has gotten away with way more than other ESPN figures in the past.) That particular case wouldn’t necessarily have anything to do with Smith or Barkley, but rather what’s acceptable at each of their places of employment. Similarly, Barkley can get away with criticizing Bayless and First Take because Turner isn’t as restrictive on employees’ comments about other networks as ESPN is.

Smith does have a little bit of a point here; if Barkley ever does say something truly problematic, that shouldn’t be shrugged off just because he’s likable. Similarly, articles on Smith need to focus on when he actually says something really dumb, not just if people dislike his takes. (The latter could be written several times every day.) There’s nothing wrong with Barkley being inherently more likable than Smith, though, and it’s not so much that he gets away with more as that Turner is willing to let him cover more ground than ESPN will let Smith cover. Smith can complain about that all he likes, but he’s still paid a huge amount of money to offer provocative takes on sports daily, even if he may not be able to go as far as he would ideally want. That’s not the world’s worst situation.



About Andrew Bucholtz

Andrew Bucholtz has been covering sports media for Awful Announcing since 2012. He is also a staff writer for The Comeback. His previous work includes time at Yahoo! Sports Canada and Black Press.

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