Stephen A. Smith is the hardest-working man in sports show business. The ubiquitous basketball pundit appears on ESPN about 10 times a day as a regular on the show NBA Fastbreak, a guest commentator on SportsCenter, and a pundit on ESPNEWS. This fall, he was also a judge on the network's American Idol knockoff, Dream Job. He also has a day job: top sports columnist for the Philadelphia Inquirer. In a recent Philadelphia magazine profile of Smith, Inquirer sports editor Jim Jenks said the multitasking hadn't affected his newspaper work. "I don't know how long this is going to last, but he puts the column first. He knows it gives credibility to what he does on TV." Jenks offered an example of Smith's dedication: On the night of the NBA draft, Smith BlackBerryed in his column between television appearances.
Oh, Lord. Once upon a time, maybe five years ago, anyone filing a crucial column via a thumbs-only device would have been busted down to covering high-school cross-country meets. Being a columnist at a major daily paper was every sportswriter's dream job. Legends like Jim Murray at the Los Angeles Times and Shirley Povich at the Washington Post were the most beloved guys at their papers. They'd write a cherished column for 30 years, and that was it. There was nothing else to do, no higher job to attain. Now, a sports column is nothing more than a springboard, a gig that starts you on your way to becoming a multimedia star.
As with many things in sports media today, television—and more specifically, ESPN—is to blame. (Full disclosure: I am a contributor, or maybe I was until I wrote the previous line, for ESPN Magazine.) Every night at 5:30, the network allows Washington Post columnists Michael Wilbon and Tony Kornheiser to argue aimlessly on Pardon the Interruption. But at least Kornheiser and Wilbon are bona fide stars. The real apocalypse happens a half-hour earlier on a show called Around the Horn, when four low-wattage columnists scream sports-related slurs while someone named Stat Boy gives them points. (As with most things on television, Fox has a stupider version called I, Max.)
Cranky and supremely talented Los Angeles Times sports columnist T.J. Simers, a former ATH panelist, gave a look inside the sausage factory when he told the San Diego Union-Tribune in 2003 that "ESPN will hire you for your credibility, but after a minute, they've had enough of that," he said. He also disclosed that the money he got from the show would "pay for my daughter's wedding." Not surprisingly, Simers was soon relieved of his duties.
In fairness, ESPN does broadcast Sports Reporters, a Sunday morning jock version of Meet the Press that features the most intelligent sports talk in the country.Of course, with the exception of the New York Times' William Rhoden, the panelists use their columns to pontificate, not report.
For the Stephen A. Smiths of the world, sports television turns their columns into shrill, non-reported versions of their televised rants. But when a more talented writer goes for the fame and green of television and sports radio, the time suck of countless side projects cheats their readers. As far as I can tell, the gifted Dan Le Batard is a Miami Herald columnist, writes a twice-monthly column for ESPN Magazine, hosts a Sunday morning show on ESPN Radio, is a guest host on PTI, and has a daily drive-time show with somebody named Stugotz on Miami's 790 AM. How can you be on the radio with Stugotz and stake out Shaq's stool at the same time?
Some columnists manage the balancing act. Despite appearing on television and hosting his own radio show, the Kansas City Star's Jason Whitlock still goes to Chiefs practices. He even uses his radio show for more than just shouting. Before last year's NFL draft, he interrogated the Chiefs' vice president of football operations and uncovered that he didn't know Ben Roethlisberger from Ben Gay. T.J. Simers is such an enjoyable read because he tosses elbows with the jocks he covers. No columnist gives a better view of the locker room: His columns on the Dodgers' short-lived playoff run were sprinkled with acidic running conversations with pitcher/wing nut Jose Lima. And during the Kobe Bryant saga, it was Simers who got the player's ear. Why? Because he shows up.
As anyone who has read Sports Illustrated's Steve Rushin knows, it's quite possible to write an unreadable column without being a TV pundit. But if you want to be a consistently good columnist, you can't be on television. While Wilbon and Kornheiser kibitz, the Post's Thomas Boswell still writes intricate commentary on baseball. His Christmas Day column on commissioner Bud Selig's battle with skin cancer was moving without being mawkish. At the New York Times, where sports columnists are only rarely on television, the reported column lives on. In the first four days of 2005, columnist Selena Roberts wrote back-to-back columns that artfully skewered the seamier side of Auburn's football program using—get this—actual public documents that probably involved a trip to a courthouse or two. Rhoden also penned a thoughtful piece on USC offensive coordinator Norm Chow and racism in college football.
And the TV regulars? Kornheiser plugged his life-inspired sitcom, Listen Up, on Sept. 14 but hasn't quoted an actual person since Sept. 1. The Denver Post's Woody Paige, an ATH panelist, now writes from New York so he can appear on ESPN2's Cold Pizza every morning. The unifying theme of Paige's Jan. 2 column was … Woody Paige. "I moved from Denver to New York, had an emergency angioplasty, became friends with Nona Gaye and Joey McIntyre, became a nasty judge on the TV show Dream Job … lounged on a hillside at the site of the ancient Olympics and watched women's shot put, swam in the cobalt-blue sea off Hydra and alongside a dolphin in the Pacific Ocean."
Yuck. Stephen A. Smith, while judging ESPN's Dream Job alongside Paige, once made the observation that "style without substance doesn't mean a damn thing." Too bad he doesn't practice what he preaches. * And, as usual, neither does ESPN. Last week, the network announced that Smith will get his own hourlong daily show. "[D]espite all that has transpired, the newspaper business still serves as my foundation," Smith said after the announcement. "Its principles and the integrity associated with it serve as the backbone for all that I'm about and hope to be professionally." Stay tuned for the BlackBerry endorsement deal. It's only a matter of time.