While ESPN has repeatedly tried to push “no politics” policies, those do not seem to apply to one of their biggest names, Stephen A. Smith. Smith doesn’t often specifically discuss political issues unrelated to sports on ESPN’s airwaves, but he certainly does that in other forums, including on his The Stephen A. Smith Show Audacy/Cadence13 podcast and on Twitter. And he got political in a particularly notable way on Fox News Tuesday, going on Sean Hannity’s show and discussing his opinions on Chris Christie and current U.S. president Joe Biden:
The especially significant part there is when Smith pivots his praise for Christie into shots at Biden and the Democratic Party, starting around the 3:20 mark. There, Smith says “I’d vote for [Christie] before I’d vote for any of the Democratic candidates that I’ve seen. That’s not the same with DeSantis or Trump.”
Hannity then says “Why is it, you see it, I see it, the world sees it, Joe Biden is weak, frail, and cognitively out to lunch. Why can’t Democrats just admit that simple truth?” Smith says “Well, because he’s the candidate, number one, that they deem capable of beating Donald Trump, which he’s already proven whether people want to admit that or not. That’s number one. More importantly, I’m not going to sit up here and label our president in those derogatory fashions…”
Hannity chimes in with “I’m not asking for derogatory comments,” and they talk over each other for a bit. Then Hannity asks “Do you think he’s a cognitive master?” Smith says “I’m not going to say he’s a cognitive master, I’m not going there. What I can say to you is that I think that there’s an abundance of people who could do better. And I hate the fact that in 2023 we have a bunch of liberal candidates out there that think that he’s the guy. What the hell is wrong with you?”
Hannity says “Stephen A. Smith, you are most known for being straightforward, blunt, truthful and honest, and you can’t speak the obvious, that Joe Biden’s a cognitive mess? Of course he’s a cognitive mess!”
Smith then says “Excuse me, I’m not going to label it that way, Sean. What I’m going to tell you is this. I’m looking at him and I don’t like what I see, I’m not impressed with what I see, and I’ve been very concerned with what I’ve seen, and the fact that he’s going to be 82 years of age at election time. If he were to win the election, then he’d be in the White House until he’s 86 years old. I think, in the year 2023, it is utterly embarrassing that the liberal side has him as their best candidate. What does it say about you when that is the best candidate that you can give the left? That is ridiculous! That’s not a knock against Joe Biden, that is more of an indictment of the Democratic Party.”
Hannity and Smith then go on to talk LIV Golf, a subject where Smith already had his opinions highly featured on ESPN’s homepage despite his lack of regular coverage of golf:
How ESPN is built circa 2023. pic.twitter.com/aDALQUacvH
— Bryan Curtis (@bryancurtis) June 6, 2023
But it’s Smith’s comments on Biden here that most stand out. And while he didn’t go as far as Hannity wanted in terms of the “cognitive mess” label, he certainly had some strong criticisms for Biden and the Democratic Party. And while this is far from the first time Smith has guested on Fox News (he’s even talked about potentially hosting there), this appearance was unusual in terms of the strength of his comments on specific candidates, who he’d vote for, and how “utterly embarrassing” he finds the Democratic Party for having incumbent president Biden as their “best candidate.”
There’s an interesting history of Smith’s discussions of politics. He told Pat McAfee in January he supported ESPN chairman Jimmy Pitaro’s comments on getting the network away from politics, saying “we did get to a point over the years at ESPN where it was too much politics,” but that it’s important for ESPN personalities to be able to talk politics in other forums. As Dan Le Batard (who had his own dustups with ESPN over political talk) said last fall, though, Smith is one of the few ESPN people who can actually do that because the company sees him as “indispensable.”
And that’s led to Smith even occasionally getting political on ESPN platforms, and getting very political in other venues. But what’s notable is how Smith’s recently started to discuss specific candidates in a way he often hasn’t, calling DeSantis “one of the stupidest people I’ve ever seen” on his podcast a couple of weeks ago and now ripping DeSantis, Trump, and (especially) Biden on Fox News. And endorsements of specific candidates (which Smith is doing here in terms of Christie) is something ESPN has particularly tried to avoid, dating back to a 2016 memo:
We should refrain from political editorializing, personal attacks or “drive-by” comments regarding the candidates and their campaigns (including but not limited to on platforms such as Twitter or other social media). Approved commentaries on sports-specific issues, or seeking responses from candidates on relevant news issues, are appropriate. However perceived endorsements should be avoided. (In others cases, guidelines, acceptable commentary and political advocacy should prevail).
Of course, ESPN and corporate parent Disney have been through a lot of change since 2016, and it’s unclear if that specific policy language still applies. And even if it does, it seems unlikely Smith will receive much public blowback from ESPN for this (even Le Batard’s challenge of the no politics policy wasn’t publicly punished). That’s especially true given how “indispensable” they see him as, and how important they find it to feature his opinions, even on subjects like golf.
ESPN is also a company that has publicly said “We don’t treat everyone the same, but we treat everyone fairly” on discipline (and backed that up with a history of highly–inconsistent suspensions, including non-suspensions for Smith). So it would be unusual for them to do anything to Smith in public. But still, it’s notable to see one of ESPN’s most prominent figures blast an incumbent president and a political party this way while endorsing another candidate. And ESPN and Disney executives may not be thrilled with Smith doing this, even if they seem unlikely to express that publicly.