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How Stephen A Smith went from visionary pundit to ESPN’s $10m hot-take machine

The broadcasters shouter-in-chief is about to become the richest man in sports media after nearly washing out chasing a vision that was ahead of its time

Adidas needs Beyonc more than Beyonc needs Adidas. Last weeks announcement of their multi-year brand partnership was more a coup for Adidas than a win for the artist. Any brand in the world would gladly work with her, and she hardly needs the money but that didnt stop her fans from congratulating her on social media. Sometimes, there was genuine feeling behind it, like Beyonc was a close friend. In other cases, the well-wishing came across more like a professional courtesy, or a friendly head nod from a like-minded peer. Beyoncs success was affirmed and celebrated as an example of things going right in the world.

There were no such plaudits when, days later, the New York Post reported that ESPN on-air personality Stephen A Smith is in line to become the highest-compensated person in the US sports media. According to the Post, Smiths salary could end up as high as $10m a year. This would be a testament to the First Take hosts immense value to the company. Certainly, his style of commentary jarring, provocative, often ill-conceived takes delivered with a level of febrile conviction that almost forces you to disagree on principle is very much in step with the networks priorities. Its why Smith also crops up regularly on SportsCenter and other ESPN programming in addition to his main gig. But while Smith garners high ratings, you would never call him popular.

Smith doesnt really have fans. Rather, hes a spectacle we cant look away from. Instead of inspiring any kind of personal warmth we, if anything, resent him and what his prominence says about the way sports are consumed in America. If Beyonc is an aspirational brand, the best possible version of ourselves, Smith is very nearly her opposite: that of a public figure who fills us with shame and dread and makes us want to take cover from the truth about ourselves.

But anyone familiar only with the 2019 Stephen A Smith might be surprised to learn that when he first rose to national prominence, he occupied quite a different niche. In the early 2000s, Smith wasnt known for lionizing or antagonizing athletes from afar; he wasnt a shameless, cartoonish bozo whose hare-brained vehemence was his greatest claim to fame. Smith was a very different kind of presence understated, cool and seemingly always on the defensive and played an altogether different role. At a time when athletes, especially black athletes, were still regarded with some level of condescension and suspicion by both the media and public, Smith was an invaluable interlocutor, bridging the gap between these very different worlds in a way that both provided a platform for players and exposed audiences to a perspective that, back then, was all too rarely acknowledged.

Nowhere was this more evident than on his talk show Quite Frankly with Stephen A Smith, which premiered in August 2005. Initially, the centerpiece was an extended sit-down interview with a single guest. It was the simplest, and most revealing, format imaginable. But what Smith did with it was nearly revelatory, even by todays standards. This was evident on Quite Franklys first episode, a conversation between Smith and Allen Iverson. The two had a close relationship that dated back to Smiths time at the Philadelphia Inquirer, when Iverson had been the biggest thing going in the NBA, a connection that had certainly benefitted Smith professionally.

Allen Iverson opened up like never before when he appeared in the premiere episode of Stephen A Smiths short-lived talk show in 2005.

Almost as soon as the interview kicked off, it became apparent that Smith didnt talk to athletes like other journalists did, and Iverson, who could be famously prickly or guarded with the press, didnt see Smith as an adversary. The conversation was open-ended by design, guided equally by Smiths curiosity and ability to press athletes in ways that few other journalists, if any, could have gotten away with and Iversons willingness to open up. And while the two delved into some heavy issues, Smith was relaxed, thoughtful, and totally at ease. If some viewers felt like they were seeing an entirely different side of Iverson, its because they were getting a glimpse at the the man that the public didnt, and maybe didnt even want to, know. At times, Smith seemed intent on letting Iverson address longstanding misconceptions or myths around him, as if this were his opportunity to set the record straight.

If Smith had an agenda in this interview, it was to create a space where players like Iverson could speak freely and get their side of the story out in public. And the Iverson interview was no fluke. Smith could get athletes to open up, plain and simple. Today, player-friendly or player-driven content is an accepted part of the landscape. But Smith was out on a limb, defiantly making the show he wanted to make.

Maybe he was ahead of his time. Maybe the powers that be didnt like what he was up to. Maybe it was just about poor ratings. Whatever the reason, Quite Frankly changed over time, departing from its original tone and concept, before its eventual cancellation in 2007, which left Smith out of a job and seemingly on the decline. Conventional wisdom said that he was done; he had gone as far as you could at ESPN and flamed out. But Smith wanted to get back on top so badly that he was willing to do whatever it took, and from there, the rest is history. Smith tried to change the way sports was covered and failed, and then abandoned his vision to, as the saying goes, secure the bag. What he tried doing with those first episodes of Quite Frankly has never been more relevant. Too bad that Stephen A Smith isnt around to enjoy it.

Read more: https://www.theguardian.com/sport/2019/apr/08/stephen-a-smith-contract-espn-quite-frankly-first-take

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