ESPN’s First Take doesn’t shy away from embracing debate, but even Stephen A. Smith acknowledges segments can go too far.
Smith joined the latest episode of The Bill Simmons Podcast and during the interview, the First Take host was asked about the on-air blow-up between Kendrick Perkins and JJ Redick earlier this year. During the NBA season, Perkins alleged NBA MVP voters are racially biased against the league’s Black players, a claim that later sparked a heated debate with Redick.
Recognizing that ESPN personalities are rewarded with social media attention for having provocative opinions on First Take, Simmons questioned Smith’s role as the host during a debate that might be getting too heated.
“First of all, it can too far,” Smith admitted. “Secondly, in that particular show, it did go too far. I thought both of them were wrong to a degree, in terms of how far it went.”
“Everybody I’ve brought on the show, this is what I demand from them. Be your true authentic self,” Smith continued. “Don’t come on here with no phony s**t. Don’t have me, or our audience looking at you and thinking you’re faking something or you’re saying something for just effect. You need to feel it. Here’s where it gets tricky though, what happens is sometimes in the heat of a debate you’re saying something and then you catch yourself and you’re like, ‘Oh s**t, what did I just say?’”
Perkins first alleged NBA MVP voters were racially biased against the league’s Black players days earlier on First Take when Redick wasn’t on the show. Smith was quick to bypass and dismiss the claim, but Redick responded to the segment on social media, prompting First Take to revisit the topic about a week later when both analysts were on the show together.
“What I didn’t know was the fury, at least it appeared to be fury to me, that JJ Redick was feeling over the subject,” Smith told Simmons. “When he came on, on one hand, I understood how or why he felt the way he felt because of what Perk had said. On the other hand, I was saying to JJ, ‘This is your colleague on the show. If you feel that way, did you have to come at him like that?’ Because it did get uncomfortable.”
The NBA MVP discussion is usually a lighthearted debate used for filler during the slow sports days in February and early March. ESPN and the NBA probably didn’t appreciate watching that MVP conversation get hijacked by a race argument.
“JJ and Kendrick made it appear like it was about them. And that’s when I knew it was bad and I stepped in,” Smith said. “But it was uncomfortable.”
Smith mostly sat on the sideline as he watched First Take be overtaken by the uncomfortable exchange between Perkins and Redick. Conversations about race can often be uncomfortable, but this one also came across as unproductive. There doesn’t seem to be any lingering effects on First Take, however, with Perkins and Redick continuing to appear together without issue.