ESPN's Handing of Stephen A. Smith's "N---a Please" Incident Was Cowardly


Stephen A. Smith said something on First Take that sounded like “n—a please.” Given his tone and the context – calling for someone to use some variation of “give me a break” – the most (and only) plausible interpretation of what he said, however “fastly” he said it, is “n—a please.” ESPN scrubbed it on the re-air and podcast editions of the show. ESPN had him address the incident on air.

Smith offered no apology, merely reiterating that he did not say what he everyone thinks he said. He claimed he should enunciate more clearly. He did not reveal what he was attempting to enunciate. ESPN took him at his word. Given their recent treatment of racially-tinged issues, this was cowardly.

Two ESPN employees, during the Jeremy Lin hysteria, used the idiom “chink in the armor,” in its normal context, while discussing the then-Knicks point guard. Anthony Federico inserted it into the headline of a mobile site. Max Bretos used the phrase on air inadvertently while discussing Lin with Walt Frazier on ESPN News. Neither intended any harm. Poynter, descending from its ivory tower, determined the greatest flaw was not using “richer and fresher language.” Being frank, there was more latent racism displayed by those drawing the connection.

ESPN took bold action in that case. Apologies were immediate. Federico was fired. Bretos was suspended for one month. The path was clear. The PR points were scored. The collateral damage from two ancillary figures was minimal. Punishing Stephen A. Smith, however, presents a hornet’s nest of issues for the worldwide leader.

Smith’s slip was casual and not intended to cause offense, but, unlike the Lin case, it was direct and objectionable. “Chink” has multiple meanings in English. “N—a” has one and it is not appropriate for television or polite society.

The offender exacerbates the problem. Stephen A. is one of ESPN’s stars. He’s a centerpiece of the “embrace debate” strategy employed to fuel conflict and ratings. He’s black, which, rightly or wrongly, complicates the judgement call. Smith also has a career built on playing the caricature of a combustible black person who would say “n—a please” outside a television-sanitized context. His whole MO is tapping into an informal bar or barbershop atmosphere which ESPN is trying to foster, breaking down the barriers between “on air” and “off air” sports discussion. This slip can be viewed as a logical outgrowth from that.

While Smith should be held to the standard of other employees, punishing him for this would inflame rather than quash a racially-tinged shit-storm. It would have unknown fallout for the character he plays and by proxy an entire philosophy of television programming. ESPN took a bold, zero tolerance stance on racial language when it was easy. Here, it was easier to display a startling level of cognitive dissonance and hope the incident goes away.

[Photo via Presswire]