Chris "Mad Dog" Russo and Stephen A. Smith once again locked horns and debated the most important sports topics of the day yesterday on First Take, creating excellent television along the way. During a discussion of Jimmy Butler's 45-point explosion in Game 1 (which you can see around the 29-minute mark here), Smith revealed that he is pulling for the Miami Heat in these playoffs so he can enjoy maximum fun in the sun. "Let me be very clear, I'm rooting for the Miami Heat to go to the Finals, yes I am, for my own personal reasons."
Responding to this, Russo landed the following jab: "First off, now I'm going to root for a Milwaukee-Memphis Finals so you can have a wonderful week bouncing around Milwaukee and Memphis." Even the mere suggestion of such a horror sent Smith reeling.
"Don't do that to me," he said, shaking his head. "Don't do that to me. Let me tell you something, I might cry on national television if that happened. I would be very sad."
And with that, the chucklefest was on. Not everyone is laughing, though.
The mayor of Milwaukee sent a care package with the city's finest goods over to the First Take crew on Monday, an act of groveling that was not entirely appreciated by all constituents, but hey, content is content. Such a peace offering was done to prevent of a repeat of last year, when the show painfully stepped all over itself degrading multiple cities that have the audacity to exist between the coasts.
And on one hand, I truly understand that Smith is playing a character. That this is all fun and games not to be taken seriously. That Russo was only bringing up Milwaukee and Memphis to get under his longtime friend's skin in jest. At the same time, though, it's sort of mind-blowing that such a blind spot can exist. That ESPN's most prominent talents are either oblivious to how these bits land or simply don't care.
Let's be perfectly clear. Milwaukee in the summertime is amazing. Only a person who has never been there in the summertime would suggest otherwise. Memphis is a fun place to be as well. I've actually never heard anything negative about the place until yesterday. The Bucks play in the 37th-largest market and the Grizzlies in the 51st. We're not exactly talking about, say, Appleton and Murfreesboro here. Even if we were, what would ever give someone the impression people sitting at home want to hear you mock and demean where they live?
Smith and Russo are two of the most talented people in the business and if they aren't generating reaction, then they aren't doing their job. But damn, let me clue you in on a little secret as someone who is proud of living in flyover country. We simply have no patience hearing grievances from multimillionaires about an all-expenses paid work trip to cover the NBA Finals. Wherever it takes place.
It's gratuitous and disconnected from the realities on the side of the television. There's no reason for me to swerve out of the way to write a working-class manifesto on a rainy Thursday, yet one can't help but wonder who people at ESPN think is watching ESPN and consuming ESPN content. Spoiler alert: they don't all live in the 10 largest U.S. cities. Most of them live in places that look and feel like a blip compared to Milwaukee and Memphis.
The real problem is that these sideswipes play perfectly into two narratives. First, the more reasonable one: that ESPN over-emphasizes big-market and coastal proclivities. See the insistence on Yankees-Red Sox or the disconnect between its current radio lineup and the affiliates broadcasting it. Second, is that it is grist for the culture wars painting the company as indifferent to the average Joe in Lincoln's sensitivities. My stance on that grift being overwhelmingly hollow is well-documented and should be re-iterated, but this cute little back-and-forth doesn't help.
Some perspective: the sky is not falling. Most people on the receiving end of these digs can brush them off. It's just that they shouldn't have to. Not for the crime of patronizing the network's most important debate show. It's entirely possible there are some on-air personalities who have never been told that this trope stinks. Hopefully that changes today.