All of us have prejudices. Most of us, at some level, know we carry these prejudices. We wrestle with them. Some of us are happy to share our vile views and don’t care that others might be offended by them. Some of us aren’t aware we have prejudices. How many of the unaware dwell among us is unclear, but given the very loud public discussion that has been going on the past few decades, you’d have to live in a cave to not know what’s offensive to certain groups.
And then there are people in the media, every single one of us, who know exactly what to avoid saying or writing if we want to keep our jobs. We’ve been to company seminars. We are reminded again and again to be respectful of people’s differences. And if we’re struggling with the concept of respect for others, we remind ourselves to be careful, out of self-preservation.
If that sounds too pragmatic, I apologize. Racial ugliness should have no place in the media or anywhere else. But from a purely pragmatic standpoint, if you’re a writer or a broadcaster, it’s your job to be aware of what might cause your demise.
So all those defenses were in place to help Stephen A. Smith not say something hateful and dumb.
And he still couldn’t help himself. Which means he meant what he said.
The ESPN commentator recently proclaimed that Angels superstar Shohei Ohtani, who has captivated the sports world by being both a thrower of blazing fastballs and a basher of home runs, could not be the face of baseball because he needs an interpreter. Ohtani is Japanese and doesn’t speak English, neither of which has bothered the legions of Americans who perk up whenever he’s on the mound or at the plate. But that didn’t stop Screamin’ Stephen.
“I understand that baseball is an international sport itself in terms of participation, but when you talk about an audience gravitating to the tube or to the ballpark, to actually watch you, I don’t think it helps that the No. 1 face is a dude that needs an interpreter, so you can understand what the hell he’s saying in this country,” he said.
Here was Smith, who has used his pulpit to rightly rail against discrimination and injustice against fellow Blacks, turning on another minority group that continues to battle against stereotypes and prejudice in this country. The blacklash was immediate.
Not long after, Smith issued an apology, saying he didn’t mean to offend anyone in the Asian community. The next day on “First Take,” ESPN’s morning talk show, he said to a colleague of Korean descent that he, Smith, wanted to be educated on the matter. That he was ignorant.
There is simply no way a massively famous media member who has been outspoken on African-American issues could be unaware that Asians and Asian Americans would be offended by his statement. Not in today’s climate. He blurted out exactly what he believed. All that was missing was the sound of a gong and an exaggerated voice saying, “Wise man once say …”
Stephen A.’s instant awakening after the public outcry sure looked like one of those PR apology tours we media members so detest.
ESPN should have suspended him immediately. Instead, there was the sound of nothing from the network. The whole thing played out like your typical NFL crisis. Superstar gets in trouble. Owner, general manager and coach mumble something about a full investigation being necessary before a rush to judgment. What they’re really thinking: “Armed robbery is bad, but so is not getting to the Super Bowl!”
Like him or not, Smith is ESPN. He is its biggest star. For that reason, there was never going to be a suspension.
In 2012, ESPN fired a journalist for a headline that appeared over a story about then-Knick Jeremy Lin: “Chink in the Armor.” It also suspended an anchor for using the same ethnic slur. What the two had in common is that they weren’t Smith.
In his apology Monday, Smith said he “screwed up.” If by that he meant he made the mistake of allowing his true colors to show, then he certainly did screw up. But to say that he didn’t mean what he said – again, sorry, no. It wasn’t an unfortunate word. It was an opinion that involved thought. It didn’t come out of nowhere.
He knew it was insensitive. He knew he shouldn’t say it. And yet he did.
So what’s the lesson in all this? We all carry around baggage. Many of us are trying to rid ourselves of it. Then there’s Stephen A. Smith, who said what he meant, even if he later pretended he didn’t. And suffered no consequences for it, because he’s bigger than everybody else.
He’s the face of our uncomfortable times. And he doesn’t need an interpreter.