Name: Stephen A. Smith
Home country: USA
Known for: Sports commentary, casual sexism, blustery wrongness.
Why he might be a jerk: Last week, a Group B World Cup match between Norway and Germany ended in a 1–1 draw after a stunning play by Norway’s Maren Mjelde, who lofted a free kick over a wall of leaping German defenders into the upper left corner of the German goal. If you haven’t watched it, you should.
Did you watch it? If so, you probably saw what I saw: a world-class athlete perfectly executing a difficult play. On SportsCenter on Friday morning, as Deadspin has noted, ESPN’s Stephen A. Smith saw something different. After viewing the same clip that you just watched, Smith—a man who is paid to have intelligent and interesting opinions about sports—offered the following takeaway: The goal went through because the German defenders “might not have wanted to mess their hair” by jumping to interfere with Mjelde’s shot.
Somewhere in America, the last remaining Borscht Belt comedian is slapping his thighs and wishing he’d come up with that. The rest us are wincing, rubbing our temples, and wondering What in the world is Stephen A. Smith thinking? It’s a common reaction to the commentator’s work. Ten years ago in Slate, Stephen Rodrick criticized Smith’s habit of putting style ahead of substance in his Philadelphia Inquirer columns and ESPN appearances. Today, the omnipresent pundit offers neither. Instead, he most often reminds me of someone who has just been stung by a bee: loud, agitated, and incoherent, flailing reactively, hitting nothing.
Deadspin has done good work over the years cataloging Smith’s rhetorical missteps, especially his fondness for uberjerk boxer Floyd Mayweather Jr. despite Mayweather’s extensive and ugly history of violence against women. Smith interviewed Mayweather before the boxer’s May bout against Manny Pacquiao and had a great opportunity to ask the fighter about his reputation as a serial batterer. Instead, Smith delivered the equivalent of a Lifestyles of the Rich and Famous segment. Later, when Mayweather’s history of violent misogyny came up on an episode of First Take, Smith attempted to brush it off, essentially telling Cari Champion that he was able to appreciate Mayweather as a sports fan, as opposed to women who can only think of him with their female brains as a domestic abuser.
Smith’s odd Mayweather apologism fits with his history of confused and confusing commentaries on domestic violence, which themselves seem rooted in a lunkheaded understanding of gender relations that makes him come off like a warm-up comic at a Promise Keepers convention. The “mess their hair” remark is classic Smith: tone-deaf, casually ignorant, and, most of all, hacky as hell. The line was sexist, yes, but it was also mainly just lame, and that’s what is most offensive of all. If you’re going to say something that’s mean and insulting, at least put some thought into it, guy! Craft your insult so that it shows off your knowledge of soccer, or women’s sports, or the relevant athletes. Smith is paid lots of money to say smart things, or at least funny and interesting things. He never actually does that.
Smith’s failings are actually condemnatory of his entire field, the field of sportscasting hacks. He and his peers have reached the height of their profession presumably because of their special skill for extemporaneous and clever sporting commentary. It shouldn’t be too much to ask them to actually be better-informed and more entertaining than your Uncle Gary, who also likes sports and says dumb things about women. Stephen A. Smith far too often fails to meet that very low standard.
Why he might not be a jerk: To be clear, Smith isn’t the only lame and boring ESPN personality. He’s not the only abrasive one, either. Every sportscaster has jerkish tendencies; it’s basically a job requirement. You can’t succeed in a job that requires you to manufacture specific opinions at will without being willing to risk seeming like a jerk. Smith always seems like a jerk, so maybe that means that he’s not a jerk, he’s just good at his job? As for the “hair” line specifically, it’s probably worth noting that Smith delivered this during some cross-talk at the end of the clip, and it was barely audible, and he only said it after another commentator had already chimed in with: “You see, these young ladies all turned their head; they didn’t want to catch one in the grill.” As with Hope Solo, maybe the lesson here is that they’re all jerks.
Jerk score: Smith gets 1.5 out of 3 for style, because he still somehow manages to sound more coherent than Skip Bayless. He gets 3 out of 3 for consistency, because, as that 2005 Stephen Rodrick piece indicates, Smith has ranked near the top of ESPN’s internal Jerk Power Rankings for over a decade. 1 out of 3 for technique, because you had to strain to hear Smith’s unfunny remark. And he gets 1 out of 1 in the category of “Is He So Clueless As to Not Understand Onion Articles about Himself?” 6.5 out of 10 for Stephen A. Smith.