As the slow drip of ESPN layoffs are announced, one person who seems undoubtedly safe is Stephen A. Smith. But maybe that assumption shouldn’t be made.
After watching some of his friends and now former colleagues get let go at the Worldwide Leader, ESPN’s foremost personality addressed the network’s bloodbath on his The Stephen A. Smith Show podcast, stating he takes nothing for granted.
“This ain’t the end. More is coming,” Smith said of the layoffs. “And yes, ladies and gentlemen, I could be next. Let me tell you all something. Don’t ever, ever, ever in your life as a Black person take anything for granted. I told you before, when white folks catch a cold, Black folks catch pneumonia…The one thing I could tell you about Stephen A, this ain’t 2009. I really didn’t see it coming. My eyes are always wide open now. I’m never comfortable. I never take anything for granted and I never assume that I’m safe.”
The idea that ESPN might lay Stephen A. Smith off seems absurd. At this point, considering the other media contracts that are being shelled out, Smith’s $12 million per year deal ($8 million in regular salary, $4 million in a production contract) is a bargain.
But Smith’s “I could be next” might still be setting the table for his eventual exit from ESPN. Smith hasn’t shied away from having career aspirations that exceed what ESPN can offer. If he believes he can build his independent podcast or production company into something more gratifying and lucrative than grinding for ESPN, then maybe Smith will walk away from First Take and his array of responsibilities when his contract runs out in 2025.
“Let me address something to some of the haters out there about me. Y’all can kiss my a**. Twice,” Smith added. “And I’m talking directly to the people in the industry who sat up there and said, ‘Why isn’t Stephen A. gone?’ Ladies and gentlemen, we have a few people at ESPN getting paid more than me. They don’t have a No. 1 show, they don’t have top ratings, they don’t generate more revenue…and by the way, none of them are Black. How come you didn’t bring their names up? I wonder why? I’m talking to those folks, the critics in media, or the wannabe media with the blogosphere and the websites.”
Smith received some unjust criticism on social media over the weekend for commanding a big salary at ESPN amid the latest wave of layoffs. But no one received more criticism than Pat McAfee. McAfee is paid more than Smith, he is white and he received a lot of backlash for ESPN’s layoffs. The timing of McAfee landing his $85 million contract from ESPN one month before the layoffs unfairly made him a convenient scapegoat.
Smith went on to blame the layoffs on COVID-19 and the revenue lost by Disney having to close its theme parks at the height of the pandemic. According to Smith, it’s a numbers game, unlike in 2009 when he was fired by ESPN, not laid off.
“They were let go because of cuts. I was fired,” Smith recalled. “And when I was fired, I was damn near blackballed because the message was sent, ‘This is not somebody you want to work with.’ I didn’t know if I’d ever have a career again.”
While Smith’s perspective may be true, telling people who just lost their job that they don’t have it as bad as he did 14 years ago is a strange sentiment. Smith may have wondered whether he would ever have a career again in 2009, but the same thought has probably crossed the minds of Max Kellerman and Jalen Rose in the last week. There aren’t a wealth of prominent, multimillion dollar sports media jobs available, unless you’re a talent like Stephen A. Smith or Pat McAfee.