This morning Stephen A. Smith was in a “First Take” debate about whether or not Kobe Bryant would play in the season opener. That’s par for the first take course, a “debate” that no one really cares about and that has no lasting significance, delivered with stereo sound histrionics and Bay of Pigs level crisis threat. Ordinarily no one would have noticed. Except on this particular morning Smith dropped a “Nigga, please,” to cement his point. He did not follow it up by saying, “you ain’t signing no checks like these,” in which case he could just claim he was quoting a popular Jay-Z song.
Later ESPN dropped the phrase from a reairing and so far the network has declined comment on the statement.
This is the second time in less than a year that ESPN has walked a major racial fault line. In February the network fired an editor after he used the headline, “Chink in the Armor,” with a picture of Jeremy Lin. I argued back then that our society was too quick to assume racism and that the editor shouldn’t have been fired. My point was pretty clear, do we really think that a white editor at ESPN hid his virulent anti-Asian racism solely to spring it on an overnight shift in a mobile website headline?
It’s the perfect racist crime!
Of course not.
Yet the use of the language was considered inappropriate regardless of context.
Now Stephen A. Smith is squarely on the racial fault line and there’s not even an intent defense here. Smith said exactly what he intended to say.
You can watch the video here.
There’s no doubt about what Smith said.
Last February, when the chink in the armor story blew up, I argued that I didn’t think ESPN employed a single racist. I still don’t. But if mere racial insensitivity is the standard for hiring and firing, how does ESPN respond to Smith’s comment?
And can you have a different standard for an employee’s comments based upon his race?
Let’s say the chink in the armor editor had been asian. Would he have deserved to be fired? Stephen A. Smith, presumably, isn’t racist against black people. (I say presumably because nothing about Stephen A. Smith surprises me.)
But what would happen if instead of Stephen A. Smith saying this Skip Bayless had said it?
You can criticize Skip Bayless for lots of things, but being a racist is probably one of the few character flaws that he doesn’t have.
So if Bayless said this in a misguided attempt to be “hip” — by the way, I can totally see this happening and so can you, fist pound! — it wouldn’t be racist, it would just be stupid and awkward. Which you could fairly argue would be par for the course for Bayless. But what would the ESPN response have been? Bayless would be publicly castigated, ridiculed, tossed on a burning pyre of social indignation, and summarily fired.
He would probably never receive another sports media job for the rest of his life.
Does anyone doubt this at all?
So far nothing has happened to Smith. (We’ve reached out to ESPN seeking comment and will update the story when something happens). But you can tell from his expression in the above video that Smith knows he screwed up. That’s a feeling that anyone in media who is paid to be “authentic” knows all too well. You just got too real. Smith’s appeal, such as it is, rests in the fact that he tells us exactly what he thinks, that he’s not pulling punches. Smith’s mistake here was in being so real that he talked as if there wasn’t a camera on him.
That’s the goal, up to a point.
But not up to this point.
Every single person in the media speaks differently on air than we do off air. You should hear the cursing that takes place off-air in a radio station. Yet, once the mic goes live everyone tries to avoid a mishap. Even still live television and radio is rife with mishaps because no one is perfect. If we were YouTube would have billions of less video views.
Which brings us back to the Smith situation, should ESPN have different racial vocabulary standards? Should all networks? What if you’re half-black? What if you’re a quarter asian, a quarter black, a quarter white, and a quarter Puerto Rican?
Basically, could Tiger Woods go on First Take and say anything about any race he damn well pleased?
By virtue of his racial background, does he have racial immunity? If I adopt enough kids from different continents, could I? Is it Brad Pitt’s secret plan to eventually replace Bayless and rule the media universe thanks to the racial immunity foisted upon him via adoptions?
Your own race can’t dictate the vocabulary standard you’re being held to, can it?
Isn’t that the definition of racism, treating someone by a different standard solely based upon the color of their skin?
As someone who talks for three hours every day — and occasionally hops on television — I know how easy it can be to say something inappropriate. Hell, at some point in the next few years there’s probably a decent chance I will say something inappropriate and someone will be offended. (Personally, I’m in favor of no one ever being fired for anything they say on air, because I want that to be the standard when I inevitably screw up). Anyone in the media who argues they’re confident they’ll never make an on-air mistake like this is either a. boring as hell or b. constantly reading from a prepared script vetted by the politically correct society of America. If you’re doing either of these you probably won’t be employed long because no one will listen or watch you.
That’s because audiences crave authenticity.
Just not too much authenticity.
And that’s why I don’t think there’s an easy answer for ESPN in the Stephen A. Smith mess this morning.
But I do know, and so do you, that every single non-black employee would have been immediately fired for saying this regardless of his or her intent.
And if Smith isn’t fired, doesn’t this mean that ESPN has shifting racial guidelines for what can and can’t be said based on the color of your skin?
And if that’s the case isn’t that the most troubling situation of all?
ESPN official response: “Stephen A. Smith vehemently denies using any inappropriate language. We didn’t leave it on the re-air as we didn’t want to create more confusion if people misunderstood him.”
Here is Smith’s commentary on re-air.