Stephen A. Smith's voice will likely get even more vociferous in 2017.
That's because, earlier this week, the veteran sports journalist/personality ushered in the New Year on a grand note, celebrating ESPN's First Take's move from ESPN2 to ESPN. That means more eyes on the Queens, New York, native, his partner in sports debating, Max Kellerman, and Molly Qerim, who has the tough task of moderating between the two outspoken personalities.
The longtime show's debut on the Disney company's flagship channel Tuesday morning had Stephen A. and Max projecting NFL playoff matchups, prompting guest and recently-retired wide receiver Steve Smith Sr. to ask Stephen A. if he "could use his indoor voice" over the excitement. That same episode also had Wale and friend of the show Lil Wayne perform.
BET.com caught up with Smith, 49, as he touched on everything from the show's big move to his favorite guest rapper, Michael Jordan breaking silence on social issues and his controversial comments about Colin Kaepernick, Kevin Durant and Ayesha Curry. He also weighed in on Serena Williams being the greatest athlete and we even asked him how a Stephen A. sit-down with President-elect Donald Trump would go.
What does First Take jumping from ESPN2 to ESPN mean to you?
Well, ESPN is the mothership. Everything started with that channel and it’s clearly a channel that they prioritize. It means everything to the company. It’s where advertising dollars flow through. It’s what people pay attention to by habit alone. So, anytime they put you on the mothership — which is what a lot of us like to call ESPN — it’s a big deal because it says that they believe you’re a big deal.
Rappers such as Lil Wayne, Nelly and Wale have been on the show before. Is there a favorite MC that you have debated sports with on First Take?
Not necessarily. I think they’re all knowledgeable about sports. It depends what they’re passionate about on a particular day. I definitely enjoy talking to Wale. Nelly is absolutely phenomenal. I love talking to him. I’ve known him for years. And Lil Wayne has always been a friend of the show. It’s not just rap artists. It’s actors as well. We’ve had everyone on there from Morris Chestnut and Taye Diggs to Mark Wahlberg and others. I’ve interviewed Will Smith before his movie Concussion.
Being a proud Black man and having your platform, do you feel like it's your obligation to speak on injustices against African-American athletes and coaches in sports when they come up?
I feel like it’s a duty that belongs to all of us. If you have a conscientious bone in your body, if you have a soul, if you care … you should speak up and you should speak out. Do I feel an obligation as an African-American to make sure that my community’s voice is heard? Yes. But I don’t necessarily feel an obligation to be agreeable about it. Black folks come in all shapes, colors and sizes and all of us don’t always feel the same.
I think it’s important that the world knows that you can’t judge a book by its cover and you don’t just look at one Black person and assume it’s how every Black person feels. What I try to do is diversify my presentation, delivery, information and just show the whole package in terms of what my belief system is. I like that I’m a guy that’s involved in creating that kind of imagery for our community because we’re a diversified community.
Last summer, Michael Jordan finally broke his silence over police brutality and also the targeting of cops. When he donated to the NAACP and also a police group for community-police relations, he was criticized by people for playing both sides. Do you think that criticism is fair?
No, I don’t think it’s fair. The reality of the situation is clear — those are both sides that need to be reached out to. On one hand, you do have victims of police brutality and that needs to be addressed. There’s no denying that. We all know that. But you can’t do that without addressing the other side, either. Every police officer is not rogue. Every police officer is not evil.
So, somebody in a pristine position of a Michael Jordan — who obviously has an obligation to reach out to some capacity and do his part in helping bring us all together — how is he supposed to pull that off if he only appeals to one side and not to another? To get to a solution, you have to appeal to both sides. That’s why Chris Paul, Dwyane Wade, LeBron James and Carmelo Anthony talked about coming together and stopping the violence.
You touched on Melo there briefly. Is he our best example of what a woke athlete is today in sports?
I think he’s a guy that’s from the streets, very familiar with the streets, knowledgeable about it, but has really upgraded his quality of life in a lot of different ways both personally and professionally — yet, is still unafraid and not hesitant or reticent in any way to speak up when he needs to. LeBron James is the same.
You have the Chris Pauls, the D. Wades and others that were obviously willing to be conscientious about what was going on and to speak out. But I give Melo a lot of credit and the reason I give him credit is because he was the one who approached LeBron and all those guys about doing what they did at the ESPYs. He was the one who approached them about the need to say something and do something, knowing that he could potentially alienate a particular populace in our country by doing that. He did it anyway.
You discredited Colin Kaepernick's stance after he didn't vote. Five years from now, do you think his kneeling during the national anthem will hold up in people's memory as one of the greater acts of social activism from an athlete?
No, I don’t because he messed it all up by acknowledging that he doesn’t vote. I stand by what I said. I haven’t backed up one bit. I won’t back up and I don’t give a damn what anybody says about it. Considering the trials and tribulations we’ve gone through as a people, the sacrifices that were made for us to have the right to vote, people who have bled, fought and died for us to have that vote — to stand up as an athlete getting paid $12 million a year, talking about racial injustices and bending down on one knee until issues are addressed, but then you don’t exercise the most potent power we have as citizens of this country to provoke change … I have nothing to say. As far as I’m concerned, it made him a hypocrite.
Since criticizing Kevin Durant for signing with the Golden State Warriors, have you spoken to him and, if not, what would you say to him if y'all did sit down face-to-face?
No, but I would say to him what I have. Look, I’m not the kind of guy who says something in public and gives you something [different] in private. I don’t roll like that. I say what I mean and I mean what I say. I don’t have anything against Kevin Durant. I think he’s one of the top two players in the world. I think he’s a phenomenal player and a great person.
But I think because he’s the superstar he is, it was the weakest move that I ever seen by a superstar. To lose after being up 3-1 in the Conference Finals and then turn around and join the very team that beat you in a matter of weeks is the epitome of hopping on the bandwagon. He’s better than anybody on the team because he’s better than anybody in the world outside of LeBron James. But it was still a weak move. I think that’s as weak as it gets. That’s what I said then, that’s what I’m saying now.
During the NBA Finals, people called you sexist for criticizing Ayesha Curry's place over her tweeting that the Finals were “rigged.” You compared her to LeBron’s wife Savannah and took heat for comparing how they each handle themselves in the public eye. People felt like you were setting a wife’s place and gender roles.
First of all, let me interject, let me get this over with. I have one regret — and only one regret — about the Ayesha Curry thing and that is this: in the middle of my diatribe on First Take, what I should have said when I mentioned LeBron James’s wife and how great she is and how she never says much because she understands that she’s representing him, is, ‘Do you know who else should do that? Bill Clinton.’ Even though, he’s the former president of the United States, who was running for president at the time? Hillary Clinton. Had I mentioned that, then my point would have been made better.
My point was not about gender. My point was about you being a spouse, whether a husband or wife. When you’re involved with someone who is in the public eye, you are an extension of them and by virtue of that, the things you do are a reflection upon them. That means, you might need to guard what you say and do because it might have a detrimental effect on them.
Ayesha Curry is by all accounts a wonderful woman, wife, mother and fan of her husband along with the game of basketball. Inside of three hours, she talked about security messing with the family team bus, she alluded to racist cops in Cleveland and then called the NBA fixed. My question is simple — how does that help your husband at that particular moment in time, which happened to be the same game he got ejected from, threw out his mouthpiece and accidentally hit a fan?
In Game 6 of the NBA Finals, he was there talking and answering questions about his wife. How is that supposed to be helpful? It’s the same thing if Bill Clinton opens his mouth, started talking about stuff that gets Hillary in trouble while she was running for office. Had I used the Clinton example, it would have made my overlying point. I wasn’t talking about gender. I didn’t say that about [Ayesha] because she’s a woman.
If this was the WNBA championship and she was playing and Steph Curry was her husband and he got in the news in three separate instances inside of three hours during the WNBA Finals, I would have said, ‘You’re the husband. What are you doing? She doesn’t need that right now because she’s performing.’ You’re an extension of one another and you have to watch each other’s back. That’s the point I was trying to make. That’s the only point I was trying to make.
Serena Williams recently said that if she were a man, she would have been in the greatest athlete ever conversation a long time ago. Your thoughts?
Absolutely true! Serena Williams is underappreciated totally. She might be the greatest athlete in American history — if not, clearly one of them. She’s been that elite, that great of a champion and if she were a man, she’d be in the same sentence as Michael Jordan and Muhammad Ali. And especially because of the adversity she endured.
Even when that adversity is off the court, personal and inexplicable. Just last week, people criticized her for getting engaged to a white man [Reddit co-founder Alexis Ohanion].
That’s other people’s problems. That’s not hers. People are going to complain about something. That’s the way it goes.
There has been nothing but controversy around the presidential election of Donald Trump. If you could sit down with him for an interview, what would you say to him?
I don’t even have enough time to get into it. There’s a lot of things you would say, but my issues were not with Donald Trump during this election. My issues were with America. He got over 60 million votes — everybody is not a racist. Some people voted for him because they wanted to feed their families and they were worried about the economy. Others voted for him because being white and in America — which is 66 percent of our population — and they were concerned about the direction of the country, whether it entailed illegal immigration or things that pertain to Black Lives Matter. Then, you have those racists, who he appeared to unapologetically appeal to.
But in the end, he could literally sit down and shut everyone up by saying look, ‘I targeted the people I knew were going to vote for me and I knew they would probably outnumber the people that would vote for her from the perspective of the Electoral College vote. That’s what I did.’ He outworked Hillary and he outsmarted her because he targeted areas that he was going to get the Electoral College vote.
So, now we get to the issue of us — the Hispanic community at some point is going to have to explain how he got about 29 percent of the vote. If you're an African-American, did it ever occur to us that in our zest to speak out, we played checkers instead of chess?
We had folks out there protesting and being vehemently opposed to so many different things, but what we may not have thought about is if they had scared the other side and provoke them even more so to go to the polls because they didn't want Hillary to win and they didn't want issues pertaining to police brutality, Black Lives Matter, illegal immigration to usurp their concerns. We thought about what we felt was right and what we wanted, but enough of us didn't go to the polls.
The questions to me aren't about him.
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(Photo: ESPN Images)