Stephen A. Smith Dan Le Batard

Stephen A. Smith has been in the news in recent weeks. Smith’s reporting on Lonzo Ball and the health of the Chicago Bulls star, who has missed more than a year with a knee injury, became a front-page story after Ball took offense to Smith’s characterization of Ball’s recovery. On Wednesday, Dan Le Batard joined The Stephen A. Smith Show and challenged Smith’s “personal” back-and-forths with Ball and others over the years in the name of entertainment.

“If you’re turning something on television into a personal back-and-forth for entertainment value … I’ve never seen anything like that on television before from a journalist, where you’re incentivized to do it,” Le Batard said.

Le Batard took aim at sports debate shows as a large culprit in what he called the “coarsening of coverage” that leads to athletes feeling attacked or degraded by sports media.

“They are merited when they complain about the critic … turning up the volume so loud,” Le Batard said. “We’ve gotten to a place where you are incentivized to go back and forth with Lonzo Ball.

“You’re more famous than Lonzo Ball. You’re more powerful than Lonzo Ball. So you go back and forth with Lonzo Ball, and all you do is incentivize all the things you are already being rewarded for.”

Certainly, Smith has cashed in on his sports journalism bona fides in creating entertainment products with First Take and his podcast. They frequently traffic in drama and tabloid fodder (like most online content in 2023). First Take is the most popular sports show on the air, and Smith has quickly amassed nearly 300,000 subscribers to his YouTube channel. Bringing Le Batard on for this episode to continue their yearlong “beef” over debate culture is evidence.

Beyond Smith doubling down on his reporting over Ball’s recovery, Le Batard also highlighted Smith’s feud with Durant nearly a decade ago. In 2015, Smith told Durant, “You do not want to make an enemy out of me.” Smith has frequently criticized Durant’s play and leadership since then.

Le Batard called it an “elevation” of how sports reporting is done. He also seemed to question whether Smith might be taking advantage of the power and platform that he holds on ESPN. In response, Smith focused on the criticism but not the veiled threat from 2015. He reiterated his claim that he does not make his criticism personal. Both hosts are speaking about major trends and changes in their industry here, and they are forgiven for misremembering or speaking past one another.

But beneath the surface of this friendly argument is a real difference of approach. Le Batard emphasized his desire to “celebrate” athletes and give commentary in good faith. To his credit, the hypocrisy he copped to earlier in the episode may make it difficult for Le Batard to separate himself from the trends in the business, but the spirit of his show is positive.

Smith, on the other hand, has built a following out of the environment First Take berthed. His primary defense against Le Batard’s criticism is that debate culture has spawned opportunities and jobs in sports media.

Wherever you land on the utility of Smith’s work, Le Batard has a legitimate point that Smith gliding up the industry by using athletes as his sparring partners has completely upended their business.

[The Stephen A. Smith Show on YouTube]

About Brendon Kleen

Brendon is a Media Commentary staff writer at Awful Announcing. He has also covered basketball and sports business at Front Office Sports, SB Nation, Uproxx and more.