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Stephen A. Smith Listened As His ESPN Co-Workers Elevated the Conversation

Kyle Koster
Mitchell Leff/Getty Images
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Stephen A. Smith's expansive purview and commitment to unvarnished, provoking opinion puts him in the position to run afoul of both the public and his co-workers for hours on end each day. His commentary on Shohei Ohtani's marketability and value to Major League Baseball, made during Monday's First Take, drew instant ire both externally and internally. It was his most significant misstep since 2014 when he implied women need to be careful not to "provoke" domestic violence incidents. Those words earned him a one-week suspension.

In the seven years since, Smith's star has only grown in size and brightness. The $12 million man is at the center of the network's solar system. He drives the pace car in terms of content for ESPN, which has — perhaps correctly — identified him as its most valuable on-air personality. Every so often he collides with a guard rail, and earns the criticism aimed in his direction. Smith was initially defiant and unapologetic, tweeting this out some four hours after First Take wrapped.

Things would change dramatically. Less than two hours later, he offered a thorough apology for his clunky language with earnestness that would be repeated this morning from his seat on set.

Smith said the change of heart came as a result of seeing how things were unfolding and the genuine hurt that grew in response. Essentially, he reflected and called an audible.

There was plenty of condemnation to go around, with high-profile network talent subtweeting Smith and explaining why his original commentary was both problematic and misguided. Though unclear how much that played into the decision to change course and apologize, it was striking to see such a outward pushback toward the No. 1 star.

In the time between the initial statements and apology, ESPN sources expressed frustration and exasperation to The Big Lead. One lamented that it "felt like Groundhog Day," alluding to the recent New York Times bombshell. This was the second time in eight days the network found itself trending as a result of on-air personalities wading into controversies regarding race. The same staffer, following up this afternoon, expressed satisfaction at the adroitness shown in responding.

Which is not nothing, especially considering the difficulty of fixing a story with existing momentum.

Completely avoiding controversy is ideal, yet unrealistic. Doubling-down has become a more popular gameplan over the past few years as any type of contrition is viewed as a weakness. Smith placed himself and his co-workers — whether of AAPI heritage or simply an ally — in a regrettable spot. And he re-focused the microscope on ESPN.

All parties faced decisions about the next steps. Veer toward separate, angry corners or steer toward some place constructive. Choosing the latter has proven to be the smart move, perhaps enough to satiate the faction of people open to any reconciliation.

The first hour of Tuesday's First Take was as good as any in the show's tenure. Smith did more listening than talking as guests helped add perspective on Ohtani and why Monday's attempts at discussion were not satisfactory.

Jeff Passan and Joon Lee offered the proper empathetic tone the moment called for, moving the conversation forward post-apology to a productive place.

A cynic could dismiss it as an exercise in damage control. Someone being too angry to hear further clean-up and potential growth from Smith can be understood. But dammit if this doesn't ring as an honest effort to make the best of a regrettable situation. A testament to having the humility to admit a wrong and take public medicine. One need not enjoy the character Smith turns up to 11 on television to appreciate how hard it is to wear a misstep without making excuses or making things worse.

One need not throw out their back slapping ESPN on the back for preventing what would have been yet another prolonged saga as the Rachel Nichols-Maria Taylor storyline hurtles toward some sort of resolution in the coming weeks. Yet fairness dictates at least considering giving them credit for fostering an environment where workplace disagreement could be used as redeeming, worthwhile content.

Having a diverse stable of viewpoints to elevate the conversation available is a product of forward-thinking team-building. Hiring employees who are willing to stand up for what they believe is correct is a strength, not a weakness. There should be a certain amount of pride around ESPN for rising to the occasion.

Again, carefully cleaning up the toothpaste spilled out of the tube is not preferable to keeping everything clean from the jump. Smith earned his unenviable seat and entrée-sized version of trash to eat. The only people disputing that are so dizzy from fighting their own confusing culture wars to tell right from wrong. But that's what he did.

And ESPN figured out a way, through patient and well-intentioned talent and production people, to move things toward a better place without using it as a cheap stunt. Without insulting anyone's intelligence. By not making Smith a sacred cow.

Compare and contrast that to the tact Fox Sports allowed Skip Bayless to take after the Undisputed star made callous comments about Dak Prescott's brother. One network is at least outwardly interested in righting a wrong, even if it comes from on high. Personal tastes will differ, but give me the side that at least goes through the trouble of giving a damn.

This is either responsibility or what has to pass for responsibility. The sun is going to keep rising the day after controversy. ESPN will time and time again need to decide how to best resolve these types of missteps.

This should serve as a good guide.

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