Stephen A. Smith Sports commentator Stephen A. Smith speaks during a live taping of ESPN’s “First Take” at Florida A&M University. Syndication Tallahassee Democrat

Stephen A. Smith is one of the most visible and highly compensated analysts in sports TV. The bombastic commentator enjoys a ubiquitous presence on ESPN and earns $12 million annually to shout about the NBA playoffs and Dallas Cowboys all over the WorldWide Leader’s airwaves.

But it’s apparent that Smith wants more. In recent months, he’s talked about his desire to branch out of sports and even floated running for president. He’s gone on a media tour to promote his new memoir, “Straight Shooter,” which has landed him on “The View” and “The Late Show.”

Most recently, Smith sat down for an extended interview with the New York Times, in which he bemoans “woke culture” and people getting fired for using the wrong pronouns (when asked to provide an example, Smith demurred).

He expresses similar gripes on his podcast with Clay Travis, ESPN’s top antagonist. (Awful Announcing’s Ben Koo reports Smith’s sitdown with Travis has had a “major impact on how he’s viewed internally.”)

For years, Smith has overtly expressed interest in moving beyond the sports world. He’s been making appearances on cable news since Barack Obama’s first term, talking about how Black people should vote Republican and the dangers of an “extremely progressive agenda.”

Those anecdotes lead to the problem with Smith’s desire to spout his hot takes outside the lines: while his sports opinions drive conversation, his views on life and politics elicit consternation.

Smith has embroiled himself in a few major controversies over the years, many of which involve the “First Take” star making questionable statements about domestic violence. The first such episode came in 2012, when he suggested Chad Johnson’s then-wife may have been at fault in a domestic battery incident.

“There are plenty of instances where provocation comes into consideration, instigation comes into consideration, and I will be on the record right here on national television and say that I am sick and tired of men constantly being vilified and accused of things and we stop there,” Smith said at the time. “I’m saying, “Can we go a step further?” Since we want to dig all deeper into Chad Johnson, can we dig in deep to her?”

If those remarks sound familiar, it’s because Smith repeated a similar argument when Ray Rice was suspended for knocking out his then-girlfriend in an elevator.

“We also have to make sure that we learn as much as we can about elements of provocation. Not that there’s real provocation, but the elements of provocation, you got to make sure that you address them, because we’ve got to do what we can to try to prevent the situation from happening in any way,” he said. “And I don’t think that’s broached enough, is all I’m saying. No point of blame.”

Days later, Smith apologized for his comments, calling them the “most egregious error” of his career. But his seeming remorse about Rice didn’t stop him from filming an MTV Cribs-type segment with Floyd Mayweather Jr. before his big fight against Manny Pacquiao in 2015. Mayweather has been accused of domestic violence at least three times, serving 90 days in prison at one point.

But ahead of the fight, Smith was proud to publicly support his pal. “Anybody that’s rooting for Floyd Mayweather, it’s almost like, ‘What kind of person are you!,’” he said. “And when you feed into it by grasping what he says, it’s almost like, ‘What kind of a person are you!’ I’m a guy that loves boxing.”

Smith is also a guy who appears to value personal friendships over journalistic impartiality. Early this year, he referred to UFC head Dana White as a “friend” when video emerged of him getting into a physical altercation with his wife at a nightclub.

Smith defended White when he opted not to discipline himself, asking what else he could do?


Smith spends an insane amount of time on the air. In addition to “First Take,” he’s a regular fixture on “SportsCenter” and “NBA Countdown.” This NBA postseason, ESPN will be airing Smith’s own alternate broadcasts during select games.

In the aforementioned NYT interview, Smith estimates that he serves up over 3,300 takes per year.

That’s a lot of talking! When somebody is on the air so often, they’re bound to screw up. And since Smith is talking about sports most of the time, that’s OK. Advertisers aren’t going to leave over a misstatement about Nikola Jokic.

But they could leave over insensitive racial remarks, such as when Smith bitched about Los Angeles Angels star Shohei Ohtani using an interpreter.

Smith’s habit of speaking extemporaneously serves him well when he’s sparring with Chris “Mad Dog” Russo about NFL QBs. It hurts him when he veers outside of sports debates.

The NYT interview is a great example of that. Smith immediately directs the conversation towards transgender people–the interview asks what he’s “narrow-minded about”–and Smith starts talking about how “living in the world today you can get fired for using the wrong pronoun.”

And that was his most coherent thought during the brutal exchange. His take on Lia Thomas, the NCAA champion transgender swimmer from the University of Pennsylvania, was nothing but word salad.

“That’s where it’s a challenge for me, because I’m like, if this is what you identify yourself with now, I support that and support folks not violating your civil rights, not mistreating you, but if you’re competing against ladies and from a physical perspective, you were not born a lady, does that not give you an advantage?,” he asked. “We’re just going to ignore that?”

The writer, David Marchese, had the perfect response: “Whereof one cannot speak, thereof one must be silent.”

Smith hasn’t learned that lesson, and ESPN is happy to oblige. The same network that balked at Bill Simmons interviewing Obama gave Smith the green light to host a sports and politics podcast with another company. The podcast, “Know Mercy,” is ranked No. 58 on Chartable in “Society and Culture.”

That’s the other thing: Smith hasn’t shown an ability to draw an audience outside of sports.

So where is this leading?

Smith isn’t the first famous sports commentator trying to assert himself into news and politics. Keith Olbermann became a cable news star at MSNBC, carrying the fledgling network to then-ratings highs during George W. Bush’s administration.

Despite Olbermann’s implosion at MSNBC (surprise!), he remains arguably the biggest success story in this arena. Joe Buck’s HBO show was canceled after three episodes, and Bob Costas’ HBO talk show only lasted for two seasons.

Currently, Bomani Jones hosts his own show on HBO, though he primarily tackles sports issues that intertwine with culture.

There seems to be a hunger among some famous sports broadcasters to prove themselves outside of the sandbox, so to speak. Smith is just the latest example.

He says he wants to position himself where “he’s making people laugh and having a good time.” Given his cult of personality – and ratings success at “First Take” – he may receive that opportunity.

But it’s hard to see Smith succeeding when he’s not trying to rile people up about sports. He can muse about running for political office or hosting a general talk show, but when it comes to his end game, the character of “Stephen A. Smith” is too hard to break.

His most viable next stop could be inside of a WWE ring. As he said following his WrestleMania appearance: “I’d be a villain, I ain’t gonna lie, and I’d love it.”

Smith may see himself as Michael Strahan. But a better comparison is Ric Flair.