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Media Meltdowns

This Is What Happens When ESPN Only Has One Pundit

MILWAUKEE, WISCONSIN - JULY 11: ESPN analyst Stephen A. Smith during Game Three of the NBA Finals between the Milwaukee Bucks and the Phoenix Suns at Fiserv Forum on July 11, 2021 in Milwaukee, Wisconsin. NOTE TO USER: User expressly acknowledges and agrees that, by downloading and or using this photograph, User is consenting to the terms and conditions of the Getty Images License Agreement. (Photo by Justin Casterline/Getty Images)
Justin Casterline/Getty Images

No one can say Stephen A. Smith didn’t earn this. Two years ago I profiled the man for GQ magazine, back when Stephen A. had already established himself as the biggest star at the four-letter network and was on the verge of being paid as such. In the time between that profile and now, Stephen A. got his money, got himself an ESPN+ show, and prospered as everything and everyone else around him at ESPN vanished. Dan Le Batard is gone. Trey Wingo is gone. John Clayton is gone. Marc Stein is gone. Brett McMurphy is gone. They’re all gone. They’re the oxygen that got sucked out of the room. And this is now all that remains.

Shohei Ohtani could end up being the most remarkable and exciting baseball player of my lifetime, and perhaps he already is. If you watched him at the Home Run Derby last night, you didn’t need a goddamn interpreter to love him. The man’s got enough smiles and enough titanic dingers to win you over, no matter who the fuck you are. So it’s not simply that Stephen A. was wrong about Ohtani in the ugliest possible way, but that he was so NEEDLESSLY wrong. He didn’t need to be talking about Ohtani at all. But this is what happens when ESPN hitches its wagon to ONE guy, and then decides to filter everything that happens in sports through him. When I wrote that GQ profile, I was told by someone within the industry that Stephen A. was quietly campaigning for the network to replace his First Take co-host, Max Kellerman. I couldn’t verify that claim, and Max still occupies a chair opposite Stephen A. every weekday morning. But that clip above shows you that Max, in fact, already HAS been replaced. By his own co-host.

There used to be a touch more democracy to all this, or at least there used to be the presentation of democracy. There is no rehearsal to First Take, as you might have guessed. But there is indeed a great deal of planning. Both Stephen A. and Max, who took over as sparring partner when original co-host Skip Bayless jumped ship to Fox, watch the games the night before, hash out their thoughts, and meet in pre-production to figure out points where they naturally disagree. Finding those points is not always easy, as Kellerman explained to me. “Most sports topics, 75 percent, 80 percent we all agree about. This guy’s good. This guy’s not. We get that. But some substantial percentage of the time, 20 to 25 percent, we'll disagree and we'll have a counterintuitive take. The work that you don't see on the show, the preparation you don't see is finding where those counterintuitive takes are, where the disagreement is. That's the 24-hour-a-day job.”

Sometimes the two men discover that they agree on something and are disappointed at the fact. That job also entails each man occasionally HIDING his opinions from the other, huddling independently with producers and researchers and even graphics to sharpen and present opinions that they know, instinctively, will be opposed by the other. And it’s not until the cameras are rolling and we’re live that they spring these takes on one another. I’d say Max was surprised by Stephen A.’s opinion yesterday, wouldn’t you? I’d say that take was in Max's 20-25 percent disagreement circle. While Stephen A. was ranting about how Shohei Ohtani can’t be the face of MLB, you could see that Max was frantically trying to get a word in edgewise to save his colleague—his boss, in spirit—from hanging himself with his own tongue.

Max failed in this instance, but the talent depth at ESPN is so lacking right now that it’ll hardly matter. Stephen A. already offered a rote apology that doubled as a promo for today’s episode and its leadoff apology. The show will go on. Everything remains content. ESPN isn’t gonna suspend Stephen A. for this. They’re not gonna fine him. They’re not gonna shitcan him. Through a combination of relentless ambition and a terminal inability to say NO, Stephen A. has become too big to fail at ESPN. A one-man take monopoly. And when you have no competing voices standing in his way, he reveals his blind spots more frequently and with virtually no blowback.

Those blind spots that Stephen A. has are legion. And they go beyond the ones we’ve covered in the past, like his Neanderthal takes on domestic violence. Stephen A. began his career playing and covering basketball, and that’s clearly where he’s at his most comfortable, his most entertaining, and his most informed. Unfortunately for him and for you, there are OTHER sports out there that require both coverage and commentary. And since Stephen A. probably hasn’t watched a regular-season baseball game since the Clinton administration, he’s liable to fill any space talking about Not Basketball with opinions that are either shoddy or outright repugnant. I know the strain these takes require. I work in the take sector myself. And I’m a dad. AND I host a podcast. So I know what it’s like to act like you know what you’re talking about when you absolutely don’t.

That’s a situation that Stephen A. finds himself in more often now that he’s the undisputed, and only, centerpiece of ESPN. This is especially true since Le Batard—who routinely gives me playful shit about that GQ profile and says I should have been meaner—left ESPN and took his sizable gravitas out of the equation. Le Batard often spoke his mind outside of what network head Jimmy Pitaro considers to be the acceptable boundaries of speaking one’s mind. Stephen A. offers few such dangers. And when he fucks up, he’s shrewd enough and deferential enough to turn that fuckup into the next day’s discourse. He’s the ultimate factory robot. He’s always on the job, and his software updates are automatic.

By contrast, everyone else at ESPN either has been rendered replaceable or has already been replaced. I couldn’t tell you who the fuck is the main NFL commentator for that network, because they don’t have one. By design, they have a bullpen of washouts and Hasselbecks To Be Named Later that they can mix and match any way they see fit. They don’t have a Stephen A. for football. Or for baseball. Or for hockey. Or for anything else. They have only Stephen A. himself to fill all those roles, and it shows. This kind of fuck-up was bound to happen, and I see nothing in ESPN’s gameplan to prevent it from happening next month. And the month after that.

When Skip Bayless was on First Take, it was HIS show. It was Bayless who brought Stephen A. on as his foil (Jemele Hill was also considered for the job), and one ESPN insider told me that during Stephen A.’s first years on the show, he was “the guy on First Take who wasn't Skip Bayless.” Stephen A. has made a name for himself since then, to the point where everyone else at ESPN is the person who isn’t Stephen A. He’s the only voice there now. All the others, including yours, hardly matter at all.

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