Screamin’ A.: The New Oprah?

By Teri Berg
Updated: August 3, 2005

NEW YORK — Darn Rafael Palmeiro for testing positive for steroids! And wouldn’t you know? Breaking news: Barry Bonds — who’s also claimed he’s never intentionally taken steroids — is now saying he might not return this season from knee surgery.

These two guys have sucked all the focus in the blogosphere away from what was supposed to be a big day at ESPN: Today was the debut of “Quite Frankly,” the new sports talk show hosted by the ubiquitous Stephen A. Smith.
Sports Illustrated poured some sugar on by publishing a profile of Smith in its August 1 issue, which I can’t link you to because it’s an SI Extra. It’s cotton candy, though, as you might well imagine. The New York Times does a better job in its July 31 profile, pointing out just how loathed Smith is among sports media pundits. (From the looks of, Smith’s not too popular among the hoi polloi either).
In a creative and hilarious 64-announcer “tournament” bracket called The Road From Bristol, Smith is seeded No. 1 in the Los Angeles Lakers regional, and has steamrolled his way through competition on his way to possibly topping the list of most odious ESPN talking heads of all time. Other No. 1 seeds: Dickie V., Chris “Boomer” Berman and Stuart Scott.)
Smith’s critics flog him for several reasons, foremost of which is that they think he’s not a real journalist, but a jock-sniffing entertainer. Further, some feel he plays the race card too often. While I might agree with the Smith-as-jock-sniffer characterization, one must take a gimlet-eyed view of criticism from the likes of New York Post columnist Peter Vescey — does he think he’s a serious journalist?
This is the same Peter Vescey knocked Larry Bird for ditching Isiah Thomas and hiring Rick Carlisle. This joker waves Thomas’ old jockstrap from his pencil like a national flag as he scribbles, and doesn’t have squat for perspective about the sports he supposedly covers. Vescey critiquing Smith’s professionalism is like William Randolph Hearst accusing Joseph Pulitzer of yellow journalism.
But the pots calling the kettle black, as they say, is a whole ‘nother story. Is Screamin’ A. racially polarizing? I’m not yet sure what that means. Are Smith’s critics saying Smith “acts too black”? While some may think so, I submit that he’s no Stuart Scott — slathering on the ‘hood slang so thick, you can’t see the cornbread for the molasses.
Scott’s patter is so phony and practiced, you just know in listening to him that he doesn’t talk that way at home. But Screamin’ A.? While he may up the ante of his confrontational style for effect, you also understand that it’s basically who he is — something both profiles point out as true.
Soooo, does that mean his detractors dislike him “because” he’s black? Hmmm. Interesting question. ESPN has a rep for hiring far more African-Americans as news anchors and commentators than any other mainstream news network.
More than signing up its share of the black former athletes who now populate the battalions of pundits on every sports channel, the “Worldwide Leader in Sports” also has given black America a voice through “PTI”‘s Michael Wilbon and the African-American regulars on “Around the Horn,” Michael Smith, A.J. Andade, and Kevin Blackistone. Now it’s taken another step by setting Smith up as its first talk show host.
Smith, then, is the Arsenio Hall of sports TV, the Oprah Winfrey of ESPN. And like Hall and Oprah, Smith seems interested in bringing black (sports) culture out on stage and giving it what he thinks is a fair hearing. His first studio guest was Philadelphia 76ers superstar Allen Iverson, a touchstone of white American sports fans’ now-fashionable disenchantment with professional black athletes. (Terrell Owens is currently at the eye of that storm.)
In the A.I. interview, Smith didn’t do much more than prompt Iverson to be Iverson. And Philly’s PG responded to every question candidly and with such sincerity, you couldn’t help but find him reasonable, likable and utterly authentic. (Maybe that’s why he’s called “The Answer.”)
Jock-sniffer or not, Smith presented to his audience, a studio crowd full of white faces, as well as viewers at home, the Allen Iverson that gets so much respect from his fellow ballers. And in doing so, Smith gave a sense of how even-handed he’ll tr! y to make “Quite Frankly,” probably even as he continues to whip up his tea-cup-sized tempests.
“What the black community has continuously complained about was lack of representation (in the media),” Smith told Michael Hiestand of USAToday. “It’s not that I always agree with black folks, but it’s my responsibility to give their take.”
I’m not so sure Smith’s critics dislike him because he’s black per se. Rather there may be some professional jealousy and turf-guarding going on. Smith has been at ESPN since only October 2003, the very month Rush Limbaugh resigned his NFL analyst spot at the network, after making a typically inflammatory race-related comment. And as fast as Limbaugh wore out his welcome, Smith has shot upward through the ranks of punditry.
Before getting the gig at ESPN, Smith was a general sports reporter for the Philadelphia Inquirer from 1994. He moved up to cover the Temple beat, and from there focused on the Sixers. Since 1999, he’s farted around on Fox, CNN/SI and ESPN Radio, then in 2003 he landed the dream job — which has launched him in so many directions, it’s easy to see why he now composes his Inquirer column on his Blackberry.
In the last two years, his mustachioed mug could be seen on ESPN’s pre-game show “NBA Shootaround,” ESPN2′s “NBA Fastbreak,” SportsCenter’s “Old School / Nu Skool” segments with Skip Clueless, ESPNews updates, guest appearances on “Cold Pizza” and “PTI,” a guest panelist gig on “Dream Job” and a new two-hour sports radio show on WEPN in NYC.
This explains, at least as his critics would have it, why the quality of his newspaper columns has dropped like a pigeon at an NRA convention. The dude just gets more than his fair share of attention.
No doubt Smith has gotten that attention because he’s obnoxious. There’s a perhaps apocryphal story of how Smith got the nod at ESPN that recalls his name coming up in a production meeting as a possible NBA analyst. Everyone in the room bellowed, “NO! Not him!”, “Ugh! Never!” and so forth — and ESPN VP Mark Shapiro knew right then he had to offer Smith the job.
Obnoxiousness is its own ticket to sports media superstardom (see Howard Cosell), but that Smith is black — the singular African-American hosting an hour-long sports talk show — just adds more provocation to the package. Love him or hate him, mute button off or on, ESPN thinks you’ll tune in.
So much so that the network is already planning a “Quite Frankly” spinoff called “Afterthoughts,” based on Oprah’s hit “After the Show,” where Smith will discuss program topics with members of his audience. Here’s an idea Screamin’ A. can grow with.
To my mind, Smith isn’t the worst sort of athlete suck-up — he’s no Jim Gray, whom players dismiss without a second thought unless they can use him to get a message out (as Kobe Bryant did in his PR moves post-Shaq and post-Phil Jackson 1.0). He’s no sideline reporter forced to beg for a few precious seconds of some athlete’s time.
Yes, he’s maybe too tight with Shaq and A.I., but Smith also has the onions to put plenty of deserving folks on the hot seat. In recent columns, he’s had some damning words for NBA commish David Stern, Sixers newbie Chris Webber and the usually untouchable Eagles QB Donovan McNabb.
Tell me who else can get away with that? And to top it off, each and every one of the above-mentioned sports elites would gladly grant Smith an interview so he could get their take on his criticisms!
What Smith accomplishes then is no less than becoming fans’ conduit, through which we marvel at and delight in our sports heroes even as we voice our displeasure with their perceived faults and excesses.
And a program in which Smith raps with his audience after having a sit-down with the heavyweights of the sports world simply dramatizes what draws viewers to his style of sports journalism — a stroke of branding genius on the part of ESPN.
For Smith’s critics, the question of whether or not he should have his own show is “Why?” I think the more probing question in the current climate of hype and oversaturation in American sports, of fans’ ennui and outright hostility, is “Why not?”