Stephen A. Smith and controversy seem to go hand-in-hand. As one-half of ESPN’s First Take, he and co-host Skip Bayless are known for making outlandish statements almost as often as they breathe. But comments Smith made last week touched a nerve, as they went far beyond simply sports.
When discussing the two-game suspension Baltimore Ravens running back Ray Rice received after he was charged with hitting his now-wife, Smith espoused a view that many perceived placed the blame on Rice’s then-fiancee for provoking the incident. The fallout was swift and immediate: People across the media landscape found Smith’s comments reprehensible.
The fallout continued Tuesday when Smith was suspended by ESPN for a week. The announcement of the suspension came after Smith had made an appearance in Columbus at the SaMarc Foundation basketball camp, held at the Lumpkin Center on Columbus State’s campus.
Despite the controversy, Smith said he never thought about canceling his appearance at the camp.
“There was no doubt that I was going to be here because there would be no reason for me to cancel,” Smith said Tuesday. “I made a promise to my boy (Sam Mitchell) and I was going to be here.”
Mitchell had been trying for the last two years to get Smith to appear as the camp’s keynote speaker. So no, Mitchell said, there were no questions or second thoughts about Smith’s presence at the camp in the wake of his incendiary comments. Friends for 20 years — dating back to Mitchell’s playing days for the Minnesota Timberwolves — Mitchell vouched for Smith’s character.
If Mitchell had any reservations about Smith’s attitudes about women, they would have cut ties long ago.
“I’ve got four daughters, so he and I wouldn’t be friends if he actually stood up and said, ‘A man should put his hands on a woman in certain circumstances,’ ” Mitchell said. “But I know him and I know who he is and what he stands for. When those types of things happen, I know, like a lot of other things, they’re taken out of context.”
Smith owned up to the mistake, noting the controversy was “self-inflicted.” He pointed to the apology he’d already made, saying it was his responsibility “to articulate myself concisely and clearly” when he’s on the air.
“I failed to do that last week,” he said. “So the hits that I took were well-deserved. I’m a big boy. I can take it.”
And Mitchell believed he understood Smith’s slip-up better than most. As someone who has done his share of television work, he acknowledged it’s a lot harder than it looks.
Sometimes, that means things don’t come out the way you mean them when you’re put on the spot.
“People don’t understand is that when you’re on TV and let’s say you’ve got 45 seconds to talk about something and you lose your train of thought, those types of things happen,” Mitchell said. “You misspeak and you say something you don’t mean.”
People don’t understand that because they’re not in that business. I’ve done TV. You’ve maybe got 45 seconds to get your thought across on live TV and sometimes it’s hard to articulate a very good opinion in that short amount of time.”
Smith just seems to make that miscue more than most. At this point, Mitchell has grown numb to it.
“He says controversial stuff all the time. This is his job — to talk about things that are mainstream news,” Mitchell said. “He made a comment that was taken out of context. Like he said, he apologized for it. He didn’t mean it. He doesn’t advocate it. He doesn’t feel that way.
The reason Smith said he doesn’t hold those kinds of beliefs is reflected in his background. He talked of being raised by four older sisters and how he had “the best mother in the world.” Being the youngest of six children, he said he was taught the value of accountability.
How could he try to prove he was contrite for his comments if he dipped out on Mitchell’s camp, after all?
“Myself and Skip Bayless, we are on the air every day holding folks accountable for the things that they say or the things that they do. You don’t do that and then run from it when it’s your turn,” Smith said. “It’s my turn and I took it and I have to continue to take it for as long as I have to continue to take it. But I promise you I will be standing.”
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