The Loud Man Always Wins

The sticky heat of summer two-a-days makes retaining new information difficult. But if a football player is going to learn one thing in advance of the season, it’s this: the low man wins. It’s all about leverage. Physics is a great equalizer as center of gravity means more than sheer size or brute strength. A confident player, with the right plan and body position, can punch up.

Stephen A. Smith was not born in glitzy ESPN studio or air-conditioned radio station. He paid his dues for years before becoming the highest-profile sports pundit in the nation. He earned his spot atop the mountain — whether you enjoy his particular brand of commentary or not.

Smith, fresh off a manufactured imbroglio with Oakland Raiders quarterback Derek Carr, gave some Cliff Notes on his impressive journalism journey, which included a diet of tuna and Kool-Aid.

The dustup began when Carr took issue with criticism from Smith’s First Take partner Max Kellerman. Carr looped in Dana White, talked about fighting, and sparked a circus.

This, of course, is exactly what Kellerman and the rest of the debate-embracing sect want. If all press is good press, so too is all engagement. It’s been five years since John Koblin wrote about how the sports television sausage is made. One thing that’s changed is the willingness of talent to go at athletes directly. To get personal. To make it personal. To poke them in the chest, daring for them to respond.

Why? Because it’s damn good theater if they do. And, more importantly, because that behavior has been positively reinforced by their bosses. Take Smith and his history with Kevin Durant. Or Skip Bayless, who is like a fish out of water that can only get oxygen by criticizing LeBron James.

These pundits’ jobs are to watch and comment on sports. That will, occasionally, get personal. It’s tough not to get personal when a player isn’t giving 100 percent or being selfish or any other thing that’s connected to character. The problem arises when there’s no governor on the TakeMobile.

Too often it seems like the pedal is pushed to the max in the most incendiary way in the interest of creating a high-speed chase. The athlete can either take the bait and follow-up or can sit idly by as body blow after body blow is delivered.

It’s a lose-lose situation for them. For the television personality–who, make no mistake, is playing it up a bit for those cameras–it’s a win-win. Either continue the onslaught unchallenged or leverage the pushback into more segments, or a feud, or, best-case, a face-to-face meeting on-air.

The loud man wins. That’s the reality and the knowledge has trickled down from the varsity to the JV, freshman, and youth ranks. One of the reasons there’s been such a spate of Smith and Bayless clones is because the model is profitable.

And, again, take nothing away from those who have perfected the craft. There’s a wide audience for it. I just find it personally unsatisfying to consume content tailored to 17-year-old wrestling fans. If I wanted to watch people on the sidelines thirsty for a debate with those in the game, there’s always political Twitter or the intellectual dark web.

Sports journalism is in the same place as news journalism. The middle has fallen out. Look no further than this week’s bloodbath to see the treacherous terrain.

There is only money and profit on the fringes.

Bosses at ESPN or Fox could stop this theater any time they please. But they haven’t — and won’t — because it puts butts in the seats and eyeballs on the screen. If you’re holding your breath waiting for the world to change, you’ll die.

Sadly, if you’re an aspiring on-air talent, you’ll die off-screen if you don’t adapt to this new world order.

The biggest megaphone gets the check. The squeakiest wheel gets the oil. And the loud man always wins.