That Stephen A. Smith is a lunatic and a misogynist and a heel and a liar should come as news to few. Smith — opposite shouting partner to Skip Bayless on ESPN’s First Take—at best represents one meaningless cog in whatever debate happens to be muddying the waters of American sports media. At worst, he shills for a serial batterer of women, honks off and on about the credibility of his sourcing, and so blatantly misreads the motives of movements like #BlackLivesMatter you wonder if the act is intentional.
On its face, Smith’s latest bloviation — regarding the weakly reported story about Kevin Durant’s impending free agency, which KD quickly dismissed as spurious — rings somewhat dully in the pantheon of Very Important Pronouncements. Last week, Smith indicated that Durant had singled out the Los Angeles Lakers as a preferred landing spot, should a contract extension with Oklahoma City fall through this offseason. Durant spoke up in earnest, telling Anthony Slater of The Oklahoman:
I don’t talk to Stephen A. Smith at all. Nobody in my family, my friends, they don’t talk to Stephen A. Smith. So he’s lying ... I have people who I talk to about everything and I know for a fact they didn’t talk to him, so he’s making up stories.
This could, and should, have been the end of story. Smith either heard the wrong information, or didn’t hear it at all but fabricated it anyway. No big deal! Just dismiss Durant’s believable assertions, and move on to the next big human-travesty-turned-banana-ripe-ratings-boon.
Instead, Smith felt the need to respond to these charges of falsehood. Not respond in an effort to address the factual accuracy of the initial report itself, but rather to KD’s implication that Smith was, is, and remains forevermore a media fabulist. Now it was about credibility, you see. And who better to pontificate on the finer points of that word than the co-host of that bastion of moral measurement, First Take. Said Smith:
You are in no position to question my credibility whatsoever. Matter of fact, one could argue, what position are you in to question the credibility of anybody in the media? Particularly when the last time we really heard you say anything of significance, it was when you were addressing the media — or undressing the media — in February ...
Smith goes on to cite Durant’s reasonable statements at last season’s pre-All Star Media Day as somehow indicative of this anti-media venom:
What many took as little more than refreshing candor from the all-world forward, Smith instead attempts to frame as somehow deeply offensive — particularly in light of Durant’s latest retributive rebuttal. How is it, exactly, that Durant’s past remarks somehow impugns his credibility when he calls Stephen A. Smith a liar? In fact, Smith’s suggestion that Durant was speaking like someone “a bit inebriated” may have been the biggest character hit of them all. All this before Smith took to shoehorning in the non-correction that he never actually spoke with people in Durant’s circle.
If anything, Durant’s low opinion of sports media is merely Smith’s cudgel in the grander argument that these athletes owe us in the media something, and they’re too sensitive when we toss around thinly researched rumors. To wit (emphasis added):
The sensitivity that these guys are showing, they are making unnecessary enemies. I am not one of them. I won’t be. I got too much love and respect for who these guys are, and what they mean to my community. But I will say this lastly. You don’t want to make an enemy out of me. And I’m looking right into the camera. And I’ma say it again. You do not want to make an enemy out of me. I’m not having it. I’ve done nothing wrong.
This is asinine. What sort of threat — if any — is Smith dangling, exactly? Should any retraction ever be offered, it’s doomed to fall dead on arrival; once you’ve doubled down like this, there’s no going back.
“I’ma say it again.”
Emphasis, man! Wow, this guy really means business!
As far as First Take flame-outs go, Smith’s was errant and slipshod and yet, somehow, also sinister — histrionics draped in seeming surety. That it somehow presupposes Kevin Durant needs Stephen A. Smith in his corner only adds to the absurdity.
LET’S BE PERFECTLY CLEAR (hat tip to some guy): Kevin Durant doesn’t owe Stephen A. Smith anything. Calling questions about Scott Brooks’ job status “idiotic” isn’t being “overly sensitive”; it’s speaking your mind. If all of this sounds somewhat familiar, it probably should: Recall, after all, the apposite case of Marshawn Lynch at 2015's Super Bowl media days, when Beast Mode’s storied dislike of reporters and their questions took center stage. Here was Lynch’s verbatim answer to every question lobbed at him over the course of that week:
I’m just here so I won’t get fined.
Lynch’s non-antics inspired Marcus Hayes of the Philadelphia Daily News to write perhaps the least self-aware column of 2015. Yes, Lynch “stole the show” at Super Bowl media days ... insofar as crotchety sportswriters like Marcus Hayes and CBS Sports's Pete Prisco found more to shout about in eight rote words than all of the week’s other interviews combined. Lynch made a mockery of the mockery that is Super Bowl media days, and these guys threw million-click temper tantrums without so much as an ounce of irony.
What a guy!
In fairness to Prisco, he hates Marshawn Lynch, and doesn’t even attempt to disguise that fact. Need proof: CBS’ curmudgeon-in-chief once exhorted NFL players to twist Lynch’s penis “like a pretzel” under the scrum in retaliation for the running back’s crotch-grab touchdown celebrations. He also doggedly followed the rumors of Lynch retiring this off-season:
How will the NFL play on if Marshawn Lynch retires? How?— Pete Prisco (@PriscoCBS) February 13, 2015
And the 2015 season’s awards superlatives:
Wait, Marshawn Lynch didn't win the sportsmanship award?— Pete Prisco (@PriscoCBS) February 1, 2015
And on not caring when Lynch doesn’t address the media:
So Marshawn Lynch talked and said nothing. Who cares?— Pete Prisco (@PriscoCBS) November 24, 2014
Marshawn Lynch talked 6 minutes.— Pete Prisco (@PriscoCBS) January 28, 2014
Five years from now he will be begging for attention
And there’s the payoff. To guys like Prisco and Smith, Lynch — and, of course, Durant — need the media. The implication being that players feed not on some inherent human competitiveness, the allure of playing for championships or the camaraderie of teammates, but on attention. They’re begging to be written about, to have the whole world hanging on their every word.
The story is no longer about Lynch or Durant. It’s about Prisco, Smith, and the myriad other reporters who, in a desperate attempt to exorcise some deep-seated, long-sequestered need to be noticed, actually convince themselves—along with a way-too-large swath of the viewing public — that these athletes, many of whom have had cameras jammed in their faces since they could walk five steps without falling, somehow crave more attention.
What Hayes calls “disrespect” and what Smith calls “sensitivity" are little more than hardly transparent veils for another, simpler declarative: How dare he?
How dare Marshawn Lynch give a canned answer other than the canned answer that his coach and quarterback are offering? How dare Durant give voice to what many already think about Smith?
No. How dare you, Pete Prisco (and Marcus Hayes and Gregg Doyel and Stephen A. Smith), for legislating what constitutes “disrespect.” How dare you for setting down arbitrary and capricious limits on athlete behavior and speech, only to turn around and act offended when one or some of these impossible and ever-shifting standards aren’t met.
Professional sports are not a morality play, and sports media is not the infallible Everyman. Yet here we find ourselves, mired in a world where athletes who dislike speaking to journalists — and have made that fact known — can be taken cartoonishly to task for simply saying what’s on their minds. And triply so for saying nothing at all.
“Y’all not my friends,” Durant’s invective echoes. “... You’re going to love us one day and hate us the next.”
And so it is that this athlete — this parrot whom another man believes exists to squawk what he’s told to squawk — says something imbued with more sincerity and honesty and truth than Stephen A. Smith has in one crooked pointer finger.
Perfectly clear, indeed.
(Contributed to The Cauldron by Jim Lohmar.)