Stephen A. Smith Credit: ESPN

We’ve seen athletes take control of the narrative with their self-produced documentaries but sports media personalities are now getting in on the spin action.

Like it or not, Stephen A. Smith has become the face of ESPN. When something happens in sports, Smith appears on your screen ready to scream. He’s a jack-in-the-box of hot takes. And now he wants credit where he feels respect is due.

To paint himself in the best possible light, Smith teamed up with Religion of Sports to produce the three-part documentary series Up for Debate for ESPN+. It’s about debate culture in sports media.

It also stars you-know-who.

Your enjoyment of Up for Debate will hinge on your opinion of the ultimate opinion giver. If you find Smith’s maximum volume observations entertaining, it might be worth your time. If you believe that Smith is the problem with sports media today, this will only reinforce your confirmation bias.

The biggest issue with Up for Debate is how it portrays Smith as a conquering hero with a noble pursuit. In reality, he’s just a guy in front of a camera.

The docuseries opens up with a close-up of Smith speaking like a prosecutor saying, “All industries associated with journalism, whether it’s finance, news sports, etc., is there to make you uncomfortable.” He later adds: “because the objective is to make a difference and to provoke change.”

Then there’s a quick cutaway to Dan Le Batard saying “I hate what you’ve done to sports television.”

Up for Debate is Smith’s rebuttal to his detractors. It aims to frame him as a vital voice in the sports media landscape who should not be dismissed as a cartoonish pontificator.

He compares himself to Howard Cosell, the first controversial national sports TV personality. Cosell rose to prominence at a time when there were three broadcast networks to become an American pop culture icon. Smith has succeeded in a much more competitive climate, and for that he deserves credit. However, many would argue that Smith has played a role in the rising toxicity of sports talk.

We’ve become more cruel and less nuanced when discussing sports and athletes. Up for Debate doesn’t spend much time examining that aspect. It would have made for a better documentary to ask Smith if he bears any responsibility for the current climate. Instead, Smith gives us a manufactured defense of hot-take culture. Smith pushes the narrative that the “embrace debate” playbook was used long before he was on daily TV. He just perfected the format. He also is hellbent on us believing that he is a necessary voice in the revolution and evolvement of sports media. 

Certainly, there are many more choices today on how you get your information. PTI was the first to deliver sports news in concise, audience-friendly bites, but Tony Kornheiser and Michael Wilbon come from a newspaper journalism background. That sensibility is always a part of their discussions. Smith also used to be a newspaperman but abandoned that thought process long ago.

The most poignant moment in Up for Debate comes from a former athlete. Shannon Sharpe was a Hall of Fame tight end who famously talked a lot. Now he has become even more famous as a media star. Whether it’s appearing on First Take or his podcast Club Shay Shay, he has created an empire for himself. 

In the docuseries, Shannon says, “I make more money doing this than I did when I played at the height of my career.’

Up for Debate buried the lede because that observation comes in the third and final episode.

Smith wanted to make this docuseries about himself and his impact. The real story is about how these arguments don’t matter. ESPN and Smith are partners in a business venture. This is pure capitalism. The objective of debate culture was never about making a difference. It was always about making money.

There’s nothing wrong with that. Smith gets paid a lot because he makes the network a lot of money. He should be well compensated. A deeper dive into the business decisions of all this would have been a far more engaging docuseries than what Up for Debate delivers.

Smith didn’t need to defend himself or debate culture. He just needed to give us a peak behind the curtain. No viewer would argue against that type of documentary. 

About Michael Grant

Born in Jamaica. Grew up in New York City. Lives in Louisville, Ky. Sports writer. Not related to Ulysses S. Grant.