Stephen A. Smith returned to ESPN in 2011 in a mostly-radio role before joining First Take as a permanent co-host in 2012 and rising to again be one of the faces of the brand. Many said they didn’t expect that at the time, including Richard Deitsch, but he said it makes sense in retrospect.
Richard Deitsch: I miscalculated. ESPN eventually takes back everyone. Only ESPN management can know for sure [why they brought him back], but Smith has allies at high places at ESPN, including Rob King, the head of SportsCenter, and John Wildhack, the network’s executive vice president. In order to return to ESPN, you need internal allies with juice and a big-time TV agent, and Smith has both.
The reactions to Smith’s ESPN return were mixed.
Brian Hughes: There are certain diseases that you have that you never mention when they return. When you have like… I’m trying to think of something that is not horrible and deadly, but is nonetheless annoying. Like when you have sporadic alopecia. You lose like a dime-sized thing of your hair, and then it goes away and your hair grows back. You kind of always know you are going to lose that same patch of hair at some point down the line.
…There’s sort of a comfort to what actually happens. Even though it’s a horrible thing and it’s something you never want, at least you know now “It’s happened, and now I can deal with it and hopefully, it will be on its way again, and I won’t have to think about it for five years.” So that’s kind of how I felt about his return. Yes, this was inevitable. He was going to come back on TV, he was going to pollute an otherwise-okay network, and eventually he’ll go away again and I’ll be happy.
Will Leitch: I think that speaks to his ability to network… I remember one of the things, this is in my original Quite Frankly piece, when he was offstage he would talk to the audience, this really awkward banter that he was not really comfortable with at all talking to the audience. Someone from the audience asked “Hey, how did you get here? How did you do it? Do you have any advice for a young journalist?” And literally, his answer was not “Work hard. Work your way up the chain. Learn from the journalists that teach ethics,” or any of that stuff. Literally, his answer was “Listen I’m not gonna lie to ya, it’s who ya know. You find out who ya know and you go up the chart that way.” That’s literally what he said! Like it was just the most obvious thing in the world, DUMBASS! To me it speaks smartly to him as an operator, and there’s nothing wrong with that. Everybody’s gotta eat, more power to him.
Ben Collins: I think there was a crossroads moment where they had to decide. They’ve had many crossroads moments and they’ve always taken the cheapest path, I would say. And this is the cheapest path, right? Where you get the lively, consistently, unethical people to just go and yell about shit all the time to fill 24 hours of airspace, instead of actually doing reporting or doing it in a more interesting way. So it makes sense that he fits within that paradigm; he’s like perfect for that. He’s the apotheosis of being a shit on television. So it makes sense that he came back for that. It’s sort of a chicken and the egg thing… like if they didn’t have him, would they be doing this? I don’t know, maybe. I would hope not, but I bet you they would be. Somebody else would be filling that role.
Will Leitch: In a lot of ways, Stephen A. Smith and Jay Mariotti are kind of the same guy. They see the world in a similar kind of way, and SAS… Jay Mariotti is like a morally reprehensible person who hits women. SAS does not do that. Imagine if SAS could just get away from all this for a moment. In his real average life, he’s probably not a terrible person. But he’s terrible on my television. You can see…they both left ESPN, Mariotti more in shame, but they both left, and it’s hard.
You know how it is. People leave ESPN and it’s scary. Even some incredibly talented people have left ESPN — Michelle Beadle being a great example of this — have left ESPN and “OK, I’ll come back.” Leaving ESPN is a big deal. It can be a truly damaging thing for a lot of people’s careers. You’ve seen it with a lot of people. And you see what happened to Mariotti. Who knows what the hell Mariotti is doing? And that could have been SAS. He could have drifted away, but he didn’t. He recognized… he licked his wounds from Quite Frankly and got his act back together. And now he’s slowly worked his way back up.
Also, the culture, I’m sad to say, moved back toward him a little bit. And moved back toward saying the most outrageous thing you can as loud as possible and in short, clickable, viewable, segments. It moved in that direction. I credit him for having a second act to his ESPN career that was bigger than his first act. But I’ll say, however, that I do not find it quantifiable human progress.
Martin Bell: Was I surprised ESPN had picked SAS back up again? No. I guess on some level based on each of what ESPN and SAS were… they needed each other. SAS needed ESPN. He was not big enough to operate out on his own the way that maybe [Bill] Simmons is. He also needed the sort of access that ESPN provides to the NBA. Not least of that, he can name-drop NBA players, and have a reason for them to continue to engage him so he can name-drop them.
Will Leitch: I think with SAS, he is a guy that constantly thought he was the only person… he can’t think he is the smartest guy in the room, he can’t possibly think that. He certainly thinks he’s right about everything, the world is a certain way and he’s going to let everybody know it, and I think on a certain level, but also to combine that with, I think, an inherent jock-sniffing nature. He clearly loves being friends with athletes. He loves the athletes to talk about him. You look at his Twitter page and there are a bunch of pictures of him with famous athletes, which is pretty much the opposite of what a journalist is supposed to do. I think what he did was he realized he was able to combine those two inherent instincts in himself in being right and being very loud about it, and also being able to become the type of star that he always imagined himself being.
The increasing promotion of SAS has gotten some flak, too:
Richard Deitsch: If ESPN viewers are annoyed at anything – and it is important to note that ESPN fans are not a monolith – it’s management and production pushing Smith on both studio and remote productions. He’s everywhere — and ESPN wants to shape-shift his role depending on the platform (e.g., a provocateur here, an NBA journalist here, an NFL insider here). It’s a ham-handed attempt to inject brash punditry into programs that could stand up on their own.
Will Leitch: One of the things I find frustrating is he’s gotten so good at being emphatic on command. It’s one thing to have him on First Take. Now, he’s on the NBA Finals halftime show and we can all argue about Michael Wilbon, but the idea that MW should have to take a backseat to what SAS has to say is a little upsetting. I think he’s learned how to play the game better and to maximize his influence over there. ESPN has learned they can let him do what he wants as long as they can keep planning these smart things they do, as if that makes up for it.
Brian Hughes: It used to be SO infuriating. ESPN has gotten so bad about promoting the wrong personalities that I’m used to it at this point. If it’s not SAS, it’s Chris Broussard, or any number of idiots they have dealing with the NFL. It’s a network that sells what it believes to be intriguing personalities that supposedly have interesting things to say.
Richard Deitsch: I don’t think ESPN cares about Smith’s overexposure; they have made him the de facto talent face of the brand. Management also clearly wants people in front-facing positions who create social media buzz, whether that buzz is positive or negative. This is evident by how often ESPN pushes Smith and Skip Bayless on both its social media channels and its digital hub, ESPN.com. Nothing they’ve done with Smith surprises me. He’s gained leverage because First Take makes money and over-performs in its timeslot. He’s now working under his own Jordan Rules.
Pat Stango: I kind of feel like he’s maybe a reason why ESPN, from what I’ve heard, is doing a lot worse now. That whole sort of super-loud, hot take sort of vibe that ESPN built up the last few years, and I guess around him in a lot of ways. It’s kind of turning people off. I think everyone I know watches less and less ESPN than they did when I was a kid or when I was sort of in my early 20s. I kind of feel like they went all-in with him, or with his type. I guess Bayless was also that way. That sort of loud, angry, hot take guy. I kind of feel like they are turning people off a little bit and ESPN is sort of paying for it a little bit right now.
Smith’s return had numerous negatives, but at least one positive.
Will Leitch: People forget that after Quite Frankly tanked, he was out away from ESPN. He was on MSNBC doing like, frighteningly enough, political commentary. It was a pretty good sign that if you are emphatic on demand, you can talk about anything in an empty meaningless way. I think in a way, it’s almost a relief to have him back in sports where he can cause less damage.
While the target of their ire has returned to ESPN, the hecklers have still left a legacy. For some, the hecklers played a large role in changing the state of sports media discourse.
Ben Collins: Jesus, they’re… the way we break down sports media now, it’s like two modes. It’s this mainstream mode that no one is really happy with but definitely takes up the most space, and they cater to college students who are home all day and watching First Take and getting angry at their TVs. And then there is this other mode like Deadspin… I think in probably a negative light, Barstool… and you know, sort of all sports media. They were that. That was the start of that. They were the start of that whole, I guess, groundswell of counter-cultural sports coverage. I don’t know if they created it, but they were definitely a big part of how to talk in that mode.
Martin Bell: So what is our legacy? I think it may be that our legacy is at least a notion that the audience can push back against this sort of thing. But ultimately, ESPN is the casino man, the house always wins. So I shudder to think of it this way, but it may very well be that we were The Light Brigade against… you know, with Bayless to the left of us and SAS to the right.
Brian Hughes: It was fun. It really was a great time. Hanging out with my friends and making each other laugh. Those are the sort of things you remember for a very, very long time. I think it’s the sort of thing that a lot of people have. A lot of people have those experiences in their early 20s and so on, hanging out with your friends with like-minded interests and you have a few drinks and are talking about things you like and cracking jokes here and there… really, really awesome memories.
What’s great for me is that I can search through the annals of the internet and find representation of those very memories, being viewed by shocking amounts of people over the course of 10 years, or whatever. It’s great, that’s not something that a lot of people are able to say or a privilege that a lot of people have. So I’m really, really grateful for it. I kind of wish that not everything that was on those videos made it onto the internet (laughs). Other than that, it’s an awesome memory and I’m really, really glad that it happened.
With Smith prominent again, though, and Fox Sports embracing its own debate, there are questions about where things go from here. Will Fox throw money at Smith to try to recreate First Take?
Martin Bell: Fox Sports hasn’t established itself as a real player yet, and so ESPN had at least, up until recently, a monopoly on high-profile, terrible… which they built a morning show out of, and also on really interesting personalities that it should do more with. But now you’ve got this interesting sort of arms race happening where Fox Sports is gathering up some of the more problematic personalities. Bayless is going to be there. Colin Cowherd, who I count among the horrible, is going to be there. Jason Whitlock, who I think has sort of lost his mind over time, although he can have his really good days, is over there. It seems to me that Fox Sports is really committing to the SAS market share. So the question is going to be, “Does Fox Sports back up the truck for SAS?”
Will Leitch: I think Fox Sports is going to crash and burn, so I don’t think they need to. I honestly don’t think they are going to need to. But again, proven by everything I said about SAS 10 years ago, I am always wrong about SAS. But it’s hard to imagine a universe where people will watch Colin Cowherd, Jason Whitlock, and Jason McIntyre talk for an hour. I don’t understand that universe. BUT, I don’t understand a universe where SAS is on every program. Maybe I’m just wrong across the board. That’s certainly very possible.
Martin Bell: I hope they do. I hope they do because it creates a certain amount of grand coherence at Fox Sports. And I hope they do because I don’t watch Fox Sports, and then I no longer have to watch any of those people.
Bell thinks if they chose to, ESPN could elevate the state of sports discourse.
Martin Bell: ESPN is still in a place where they can take chances now and then. ESPN took a chance on Grantland. ESPN is taking a chance on The Undefeated now, which I hope, as both a black person and somebody who likes reading, works out well. ESPN has taken a chance on this OJ documentary. …My point here is maybe ESPN is still in the position where it can take a broader risk. A risk to leverage what market share it already has to abandon entirely the dumb take model to Fox Sports, and to build on to the next thing, and to take the country with them. To take the country with them.
ESPN, if they wanted to, could reach a point where they set a mark for discourse as it pertains to sports that exceeds what we get from anybody when it comes to politics. I’d like to see sports take the lead there, because if you have an ESPN that is smart, that is thoughtful, that engages real issues in an intellectually honest and genuine way that is more Zach Lowe than it is Colin Cowherd… sports as a whole is better off. Discourse as a whole is better off. At that point people start watching ESPN and saying “Wait a minute, why isn’t the political punditry this thoughtful?” We are a couple of steps away from some really good things happening. …And then people can show up at political conventions with sock puppets instead of the NBA Draft.