Stephen A. Smith trusts his instincts in dealing with criticism. But he worries about the way ESPN might react to that same reproach.
Smith recently spoke to Mediaite’s Aidan McLaughlin on The Interview podcast. During their conversation, McLaughlin asked Smith whether he feels the need to be careful and self-censor on-air, because social media and aggregators are always at the ready to dissect his commentary.
“Yes, but I self-censor because I’m responsible,” Smith answered. “I represent ESPN, which is owned by Walt Disney…You have to be responsible enough to recognize that you don’t represent just yourself when you have these airwaves available to you. You represent a commodity, an entity that employs you. So, in that regard, the word, you know, just being responsible comes to light.
“But I don’t want to say careful. Because I think that when you say careful, what happens is, is that we have so many people that do believe in being so, quote unquote, careful that they come across as very phony and inauthentic. And that’s not something I’m going to allow to happen.”
Smith has built a brand on being brash and honest on-air. And if he trusts his instincts, ESPN’s foremost personality shouldn’t have to worry too much about being careful on-air. Although, Smith previously stated he wakes up every day feeling he’s next in line to be “canceled.” But more than fearing potential criticism on social media, Smith worries about ESPN’s response to any potential firestorm.
“I’ve said this to ESPN, and I’ve said this to anybody publicly, and I’ll never apologize for it because I mean it,” Smith continued. “The only thing that’s hard about it is ESPN, because of how ESPN may react to the tsunami of criticism that might come my way. I’m the type of person that if I did something wrong, I’ll apologize. You know, if I believe I’m right, I don’t give a damn if an army is against me, I’ll still stand up and say, I believe I’m right. And I don’t worry about the criticism. I only worry about how my bosses are going to feel about that criticism.”
From the outside, ESPN and Smith appear to have a symbiotic relationship. Smith might be willing to absorb more criticism than the Disney-owned sports network is, but it’s not like ESPN is constantly forcing him to apologize for things he says on-air. (And, as he’s said, his contract is guaranteed.) Despite ESPN’s desire to be family friendly and strive for political correctness, Smith’s brazenness hasn’t reaped much trouble throughout his career. And that’s especially true when you consider the number of hours he spends on live TV.
Smith served his one and only suspension from ESPN in 2014, after suggesting some women provoke domestic violence. He sparked a massive firestorm two years ago and was justly condemned for claiming Shohei Ohtani can’t become the face of Major League Baseball while using an interpreter during interviews. After initially doubling down on the Ohtani take, Smith eventually apologized. That was perhaps with some nudging from ESPN as they watched him get engulfed by a tsunami of warranted criticism.