Is Stephen A. Smith a racist? A xenophobe? Or just a cartoon character with a penchant for taking himself too seriously?
ESPN's ubiquitous personality ("ubiquitous'' meaning, "We pay you $12 million annually and so we need you to comment outrageously on everything'') stepped in it again this week, commenting in essence that if that Japanese baseball star Shohei Ohtani wishes to promote Major League Baseball, he should become more fluent in English.
“I don’t think it helps that the number one face is a dude that needs an interpreter so you can understand what the hell he’s saying,” Smith said.
Smith, as he often does, responded to criticism of the offensive foolishness of his remark by repeating the offensive foolishness - only louder, and maybe with some big words that rhyme.
“If you are a sport trying to ingratiate yourself with the American public the way Major League Baseball is, because of the problems that you’ve been having to deal with in terms of improving the attractiveness of the sport, it helps if you spoke the English language,” he said on Twitter.
Ohtani, of course, is a baseball phenomenon, a modern-day Babe Ruth who excels for the Los Angeles Angels as an everyday player, a hitter and a pitcher. (It so happens that Tuesday's All-Star Game at Denver, in which the Texas Rangers trio of Joey Gallo, Kyle Gibson and Adolis García participated, was won by Ohtani's American League squad, 5-2, over the National League. Ohtani batted leadoff for the AL and was the starting pitcher and credited with the win.)
Ohtani's incredible gifts are, logic suggests, "improving the attractiveness of the sport.'' That attractiveness, logic suggests, is happening in Los Angeles and across the country and world-wide, surely in Japan and across Asia as well. Smith is apparently unaware that those potential baseball fans count, too.
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Yes, even the ones who don't look or sound like Stephen A. Smith.
In a later on-camera apology from Smith, he said, “I am a Black man. I religiously go off on minorities being marginalized in this nation. The reality of the situation is that you have Asians and Asian-Americans out there that obviously were very, very offended by what I had to say yesterday, and I just want to look into the camera and extend my sincere apologies.”
He later added, "My comments — albeit unintentional — were clearly insensitive and regrettable.”
We cannot measure "sincerity.'' We can, however, wonder why Smith's semi-gibberish "apology'' required him to list his credentials in the fight against "marginalization'' and included a claim of "albeit unintentional'' motives when he uttered the attack not once but twice, first on TV and then on social media. And we can remain befuddled as to why the face of "the world-wide leader in sports'' would fail to realize the countless athletes, in America and across the wide world, might be too busy mastering their craft to consider whether the way they communicate is pleasing to the ear of Stephen A. Smith.
Ohtani is a generational talent. The media demands on him are such that an interpreter makes sense.
Smith is talented, too, and maybe ESPN’s weighty reliance on him is part of the problem. He is by far the network's most visible commentator. He is propped before the cameras to serve as an NBA expert (which is truly is capable of being) and to serve as an UFC expert (that seems a stretch) and to talk about the NFL (which he knows little about and MLB (which he knows less than little about) and he hosts “First Take'' and appears on “Get Up!” and seriously, if a whiff of controversy is in the air in the form of a sports news story, ESPN instructs him to knot his tie, sit up straight and start yelling.
That should be the centerpiece of the real apology: Smith said ridiculous and damaging things about a baseball player because Smith didn't know the player and therefore didn't have anything else to say about him beyond nonsense. ... leaving the viewer wondering if maybe Shohei Ohtani isn't the only high-profile guy on TV who could use an interpreter.