Stephen A. Smith has thrived at ESPN since the intersection of sports and politics became a polarizing debate in itself.
There are crowds of people who bash sports talkers for entering the realm of politics and there are others who criticize hosts for fearing to weigh in on social discussions that are clearly bigger than the game. Smith, however, is of the opinion that it’s important to use his ESPN platform to address social and political topics.
Smith joined his ESPN colleague and frequent First Take debate partner, Jay Williams this week on Williams’ NPR podcast The Limits with Jay Williams. During their broad conversation, Williams complimented the First Take host for his ability to navigate the often-controversial intersection of sports and politics.
“When you see things like that that happen in sports get politicized and get weaponized, you have been one of the few that openly have dialogue about it,” Williams told Smith. “When it feels like people don’t want to go to other places for that combination of politics and sports. How did you merge those two worlds together?”
Smith offered a simple answer, “Fearlessness.”
“I’m not scared,” Smith continued. “I don’t have a problem letting you know where the hell I stand and how I feel as it pertains to the world of politics because politics dramatically infiltrates our lives. Why are we going to pretend otherwise?
“So the politicization of sports actually benefits us, because we talk about sports being a microcosm of our society. And we talk about sports historically having an impact on change in our society. Well, guess what? How would that ever occur if we weren’t ever willing to politicize it? Grab it by the horn and run with it.”
Smith has used his ESPN show to address racism when it intersects with sports, police brutality, George Floyd, Colin Kaepernick, Donald Trump, the Capitol Insurrection. He’s even floated his own interest in running for president in recent days.
While Smith may attack those topics with fearlessness, there are times that carelessness has led to missteps and the need to apologize. Earlier this year, Smith apologized to Jehovah’s Witnesses after wrongly implying they were opposed to the COVID vaccine. In 2014, Smith served his lone suspension from ESPN after suggesting some women provoke domestic violence. One year later, he made an ignorant joke claiming female soccer players didn’t want to mess up their hair. And last summer, Smith needed to apologize after being criticized for coded racism about Shohei Ohtani.
Although the above instances are more social than political, they still represent topics that wouldn’t have been touched by a host who sticks to sports. Smith has, however, boasted about garnering just one suspension during his current ten-year tenure with ESPN, where he gets paid to offer thousands of hot takes.