FS1 executive vice president Charlie Dixon created quite a stir this week with comments to John Ourand of Sports Business Journal about what he views as Fox Sports’ overall move away from debate. That’s been seen on some of their studio programming over the last year, and is expected to be seen in some fashion on the new-look Undisputed when that show begins its post-Shannon Sharpe era on Aug. 28.
There, Dixon’s lines to Ourand such as “There’s enough strife going on in everybody’s day-to-day that doesn’t have to just be debate” and “We focus more on the chemistry and the availability of agreeing with people versus trying to find inflection points where people have a variance of opinions” sparked a lot of coverage, including on this site. Now, ESPN’s Stephen A. Smith, one of the chief figures in the last decade-plus of the “Embrace debate” movement with his work on First Take, has weighed in, and done so in strong terms. And he used this as an intro for again going after Meadowlark Media’s Dan Le Batard over Le Batard’s criticism of debate shows.
Smith is not a fan of this change from Fox, which he sees as “capitulation” to critics. But he has continued issues with one critic in particular, Le Batard. Last month, as part of a long discussion of Smith and Bayless (part of which we covered here), Le Batard claimed that Bayless’ strategy is ‘get somebody loud and Black across from me, and we will fight.’ And that seems to have particularly bothered Smith.
On his The Stephen A. Smith Show podcast Friday, Smith discussed the Undisputed changes, Le Batard’s comments, and other related topics for more than 20 minutes. Here’s that full show, with the comments in question beginning around the 4:00 mark (after Smith discussed his excitement over adding Sharpe as a weekly guest debater on First Take):
Here are a few key remarks there, with timestamps:
4:15: “I’m seeing a lot of stories circulating. And when you have stuff that’s circulating, ‘Shannon Sharpe is coming’ and, you know, they’re talking about ‘What the hell is Stephen A. going to do, they’re just going to scream at each other all day long,” blah blah blah blah blah. Well, I’ve seen plenty of times where Shannon Sharpe hasn’t been screaming. And I’ve seen plenty of times where I haven’t been screaming.”
“And I really, really could get into how much I detest, you know, when folks take that kind of position. I remember, like, one of the things that I said years ago, that I didn’t like being called ‘Screamin’ A.’ It’s not that I’m not screaming. It’s not that I’m not loud. And it’s not that I can’t be bombastic and demonstrative, because I know that I can. It’s just that when white folks do it, y’all call it ‘passionate.’ But when the brothas do it, we be screaming. I don’t like that.”
“So on this particular day, although I’m going to be as passionate and forceful as I want to be, I’m going to make sure I monitor my, my, my, my tone, and my volume, so nobody can use it as an excuse to not hear where the hell I’m coming from. It doesn’t mean that I’m never going to yell again, it doesn’t mean that my demonstrative or bombastic tendencies ain’t going to come wearing through. It’s who the hell I am, and I’m not apologizing for it, and I never will.”
“But I think’s important to bring up, because there’s some people in the media and beyond, people in the blogosphere trying to pass themselves off as media, along with others, who, quite frankly, just say s***. That’s the truth. It’s just the truth. You can call it jealousy, you can call it envy, you can call it a lot of things.”
Smith then goes on to discuss how in 2003, he got a general sports columnist role at The Philadelphia Inquirer, and says he was the 21st Black person to ever hold that title. (That’s presumably not counting the many columnists at Black newspapers before that.) He says in 2003, before social media, “You had to be a columnist to have a license to editorialize and express your opinion.” (That’s not entirely true, as viewers of opinionated announcers like Howard Cosell and studio show pundits before then who were not columnists know well, but there’s a point there when it comes to print media.)
Smith then goes off on how he doesn’t feel opinionated white columnists and pundits got the same treatment he did, at around the seven-minute mark of that clip. “I can assure you, they were yelling. I’m not going to throw out any names, because I don’t want to cast any aspersions on anybody, because I don’t think anyone did anything wrong by raising their voice. But nobody called them volatile, nobody called them ‘Screaming whatever,’ nobody tried to denigrate them and accuse them of dissipating and diminishing the quality of the sports industry business.”
“But all of a sudden, Shannon Sharpe’s coming to First Take, Skip Bayless and Undisputed on FS1 reportedly, reportedly, are going to modify their approach. I got news for you: they’re the quote-unquote competition, I’m here to defend them. I’m here to defend them.”
“Now, you want to get into the literal quality and content of somebody’s words meaning what they say, specifically? I get where you’re coming from. You want to get on me for mistakes I’ve made in the past, that’s fine. I’ve made stupid mistakes in the past.”
“I didn’t articulate and enunciate my words with the clarity it deserved regarding Ray Rice. Shohei Ohtani, that was just an embarrassing take on my part, and I deserved to be vilified for it, because even though I meant something totally different, it’s my responsibility to step up and articulate whatever message I want to disseminate in a proper fashion.”
“You want to get on Skip Bayless for his position about Dak Prescott and mental illness or Tim Tebow or whatever position he took in the immediate aftermath of Damar Hamlin, that’s fine. But this notion that all of a sudden, the industry of sports journalism has been so sullied, to the point where it’s almost irreparable, and it’s our fault? It pisses me off. It’s a lie. It’s not factually correct. It’s utter bull****. ”
“And to me, when I read the reports about Undisputed modifying its approach, taking a more quote-unquote agreeable, I’m not saying they said, I’m saying the reports, whether it’s Front Office Sports or Awful Announcing or whoever the hell came up with it, because I forget where I read it [note: we appreciate the citation, but the credit really should go to Ourand and SBJ for getting Dixon on the record], but a couple of people wrote about them modifying their approach to some degree, that they’re going to be more agreeable and all of this other stuff.”
“The only thing that I would say about that? I’m lamenting the capitulation to the noise saying that there’s something wrong with the show. So what, Shannon and Skip were passionate?”
Smith then goes through (beginning around 10:15) listing the people he’s been passionate about debating, then says sports fans are more passionate than news program viewers, then says “fan, essentially an acronym for fanatics” [it’s an abbreviation, not an acronym, which is a particular type of abbreviation where the initial letters of words are used]. He then says First Take won’t “capitulate” the way he thinks Undisputed has, then goes on a rant about First Take‘s numbers, then says “What exactly are we doing that’s such a crime? That we’re passionate? That we’re a little bit loud with it? That from occasion, we tend to scream? Don’t we laugh, don’t we joke around, don’t we have a good time? Is it not entertaining? The audience says so!”
Smith then discusses First Take viewership on TV and YouTube (for clips), and says that that proves the value of his approach. [Scoreboard!] He then claims critics can’t criticize because they don’t have shows putting up those numbers. “The people that’s talking aren’t doing that, but they’re chirping about what’s happening to this industry.” He then says “And I’m not talking about Dan Le Batard” before spending 10 minutes talking about Le Batard, starting with playing a clip from Le Batard’s March interview with him, and saying that Le Batard’s argument that Smith’s imitators mean Smith deserves criticism should be applied to him as well.
Smith then (around 14:15) plays a clip from Le Batard’s July 17 discussion of him, which came in response to Smith’s own discussion of Le Batard. There, Le Batard says he’d like to talk to Smith “in a way that is conversational, not performative, about how dumb sports debate television has made everything,” calls Bayless “a plague,” and says Bayless “gave Stephen A. the chance that he gave Shannon Sharpe, to do the thing of ‘Let’s do white man-Black man, and we’ll do the dog whistle, and sports will get dumber, and I’ll spend 20 years chasing LeBron, who’s only the athlete of our times, and deserves lots of praise. I’m going to situate myself as the hater, and just get somebody loud and Black across from me, and we will fight.” Smith’s response there starts at 14:55:
“That is incredibly, incredibly insulting, more so to Skip Bayless. A ‘plague’? Because he wants to hate on LeBron? And people debate him? And it’s usually somebody Black sitting across from him? Well, white people have debated Skip Bayless. They didn’t rate. The art of television is that ratings and revenue do matter, they do count. So let’s get that out of the way.”
“Secondly, I’m not going to apologize for being somebody who appreciates the opportunity that Skip Bayless gave me, because he was a white man in that position. And that was something that he didn’t have to do, but he elected to have me as a debate partner. And although my career has taken off and I’ve been blessed and fortunate to be No. 1 ever since, knock on wood.”
“But that could end tomorrow, I’m sorry if I’m a person that’s not going to forget the opportunity that somebody gave to me when they didn’t have to. That doesn’t mean that I agree with everything he says, that doesn’t mean I co-sign everything he says.”
Smith then points out some Bayless stances he doesn’t agree with, from comments on Troy Aikman to comments on LeBron James. But he then says (16:30) “But that’s his opinion, and everybody has one, just like Dan Le Batard has one, just like all these bloggers have one, this Awful Announcing, this Front Office Sports, it’s the Bleacher Report, Clutch Points, I mean, the list goes on and on and on, Deadspin, it’s been around forever, The Big Lead, the list goes on and on and on. There are a lot of things to like and not like about institutions, about networks, about whatever distributors of content, about individuals, that’s absolutely, positively true. But it ain’t the be-all and end-all!”
Smith then says he thinks it’s hypocritical to see the criticism First Take and Undisputed get. He brings up Pardon The Interruption, Around The Horn, Le Batard’s own Highly Questionable, Outside The Lines, SportsCenter and more. “Michael Wilbon and Tony Kornheiser have been debating for years! They’ve gotten loud with each other. But we know what great journalists they were, what great columnists they were, and what great friends they’ve been for over 40 years. So they may not get labeled that way.”
“People have insulted Around The Horn, that’s still on the air. When Highly Questionable was on the air with Dan Le Batard and his daddy, some people liked it, some people didn’t. Outside The Lines was hosted by Bob Ley for years, the great Bob Ley, the iconic Bob Ley, the award-winning journalist that was Bob Ley, some people liked it, some people didn’t.”
Smith goes on from there to discuss SportsCenter and some of its prominent personalities over the years, plus Dick Vitale, Chris Berman, The Sports Reporters, Charles Barkley, and more. At around 19:45, he wraps up with “It’s television! It comes in all forms, shapes, and sizes! You do what you do and you find an audience that gravitates to it! First Take, dumb television? We start the conversation every morning! We’ve talked about crime, we’ve talked about racism, we’ve talked about all types of issues pertinent to the world of sports and beyond.”
“We were dumb when we talked about domestic violence? We were dumb when we talked about crime? We were dumb when we talked about collective bargaining negotiations, the paucity of African Americans in head coaching or executive positions, or running backs just recently being ostracized by the National Football League because you look at their birth certificates, and regardless of their years of productivity and efficiency, just because their birth certificate says they’re this certain age, they can’t do X,Y,Z, Colin Kaepernick, the national anthem, patriotism in the United States of America or lack thereof, rights as citizens, constitutionally and beyond? We were dumb? Dumb? Dumb television?”
Smith then lists the credentials of the people he’s worked with, and says “Ladies and gentlemen, don’t fall for it. Don’t fall for it. See, folks are going to complain about what they’re not. …Let me assure you all right now, on First Take, we’re going to do what we do. …We ain’t going to capitulate to this nonsense of these folks. They’re going to help me just debate feverishly, passionately, yet respectfully, entertaining and having fun and all that stuff.”
“If we can’t sit up there and talk sports without somebody trying to act like they’re all cerebral and bushy and above everybody else, looking down, we’re not changing. You know why we don’t have to change? Because we’re versatile. Yes, we do raise our voices from time to time. Hell, I do it a lot.”
“Sometimes I’m quiet, sometimes I’m mellow, sometimes I just use my facial expressions and my body language to say what I want to say. …It’s the Entertainment Sports and Programming Network, we going to do what we do and we’re going to have a good time doing it. And we ain’t changing for nobody.”
He then makes a comment (24:05) about Le Batard claiming he was “performative.” “Respectfully, Dan Le Batard, you know good and f****** well this is how I talk. Sometimes lower, sometimes higher, but I always talk like this. It ain’t performative, it’s me. It’s insulting for you to imply that. And I’m sick and tired of being hit in the back with implications from someone that’s supposed to know me.”
“…I speak the way that I speak. What do you mean, performative, like I’m trying to put on a show? I’ve talked to you on the phone when nobody’s around, when nobody’s listening, when nobody’s watching, the exact same way. This is the b*******. Another network might capitulate to all that, and I hope they don’t, I love competition. Don’t bother me at all. It makes the world go round. Let’s get it on.”
“But I can’t stand the thought of anybody feeling the need to capitulate to such insignificant noise, talking about folks out there in the blogosphere of ‘Aw, it’s too much, it’s too much, it’s too much!’ Why’s it too much? Why y’all have podcasts then? With your podcasts, y’all on air whispering, y’all ain’t expressing any opinions, everything that you’re all talking about is cerebral and intellectual and far above, and it elevates the mind, and the psyche of everyone everywhere? That’s what we’re talking about?”
Smith goes from there to discuss Jerry Springer, Maury Povich, reality TV, pop music, and more, and then brings up his guests and how he doesn’t think he needs to change. (26:30) “You’re all full of s***. …What pisses me off right now is the notion that, somehow, someway, there needs to be a change in this industry because shows like First Take and Undisputed and Around The Horn and all this other stuff, oh, we’re bringing down television. We’ve been journalists. We’ve reported. I’ve had megastars from all across the entertainment stratosphere come on First Take. By the way, Roger Goodell’s coming on First Take soon, is he coming on any of y’alls’ shows?”
“Rob Manfred, he’s coming on my show soon too. What happened the last time he was on your show, Dan? You were the epitome of professionalism! That was a fantastic interview, by the way, you were absolutely sensational, but you were the epitome of professionalism. Oh, nothing personal that came oozing out of you, as the paragon of virtue hovering over South Beach, disgusted at what was transpiring in the baseball landscape in Miami. It’s unbelievable. Reading these stories, folks capitulating to this kind of noise. S***, I ain’t. I’ll tell you that much.”
There’s certainly a lot there from Smith, and it’s notable to see him go off on debate format critics in general and Le Batard in particular at this length. We’ll see if this feud continues to snowball from here.
[The Stephen A. Smith Show on YouTube]