ESPN's Stephen A. Smith Is Kinda Sorry About That Whole Victim-Blaming Thing
After a weekend of blistering criticism, ESPN personality Stephen A. Smith apologized for his comments on domestic violence Monday. ESPN has announced that Smith will not be suspended for the remarks, which he made while discussing the NFL's punishment of Baltimore Ravens running back Ray Rice, widely perceived as lax. And in a way, the NFL might appreciate that ESPN didn't drop the hammer — the last thing they'd need now is the PR nightmare of Smith being barred from more broadcasts than Rice will be from games.
The apology was delivered on-air Monday, during Smith's regular appearance on First Take. It's normally a show built mainly around bombastic and over-the-top shouting matches between himself and co-host Skip Bayless, but there was a decidedly more somber and serious tone on set for Smith's mea culpa.
While sitting on that same set Friday, Smith spoke about the need for women to not "do anything to provoke wrong actions" — by which he meant provoking being beaten, like what Rice's then-fiancee Janay Palmer allegedly suffered at the NFL star's hands in February. He emphasized that he disagreed with domestic abuse, and framed the advice as something he's discussed within his own family. But both in the context of Rice's slap on the wrists and on the whole, the remarks were deeply tone-deaf, and offended countless viewers. Not the least of all was fellow ESPNer Michelle Beadle, who excoriated Smith on Twitter hours after the segment aired.
My words came across that it is somehow a woman's fault. This was not my intent. It is not what I was trying to say. Yet the failure to clearly articulate something different lies squarely on my shoulders. To say what I actually said was foolish, is an understatement. To say I was wrong is obvious. To apologize, to say I'm sorry, doesn't do the matter its proper justice to be quite honest. But I do sincerely apologize.
In a pre-taped segment, Smith repudiated his remarks from last week, followed by related comments from co-host Cari Champion. As USA Today's Chris Chase observed, Smith's apology was straightforward, if a little unnecessarily self-serving by the end, but he didn't deliver it live.
The offending remarks came as Smith was in the flow of a live, televised discussion, and as such, it's possible you won't be moved by such an obviously planned-out response.
Smith also maintained that he'd "religiously" spoken out against domestic violence throughout his career, "over these very airwaves." But to the contrary, this isn't the first time Smith's ventured into victim-blaming during his First Take tenure — as The Washington Post reported, Deadspin dug up a 2012 clip of Smith taking a very similar tact when discussing domestic violence allegations against former NFL wide received Chad Johnson. Frankly, it's a bit more overt than this most recent flub — the clip is long and not of great quality, but it's worth hearing the words out of his mouth, and the way he says them. The relevant portion begins at 12:45.
I've never put my hands on a woman. You shouldn't have to put your hands on a woman. Walk away. I've said that. But, there are plenty of instances where provocation comes into consideration, instigation comes into consideration, and I will be on the record right here on national television, and say that I am sick and tired of men constantly being vilified and accused of things and we stop there. I'm saying, can we go a step further? Since we want to dig all deep into Chad Johnson, can we dig in deep to her?
In other words, the oldest defense of domestic violence in the book — "she probably had it coming." In light of the passion and fervency Smith shows in the clip above, which he never made a similar apology for (either because nobody noticed or cared), added together with his initial response to the controversy, a series of prickly and defensive tweets, you can be forgiven for thinking this apology has more to do with smoothing things over than really making things right.
It's a particular shame that on First Take, a show which literally uses the slogan "embrace debate," a more rigorous and real-time back-and-forth about Smith's history with this kind of victim-blaming wasn't offered. Maybe "embrace debate about ultimately irrelevant pastimes except when they intersect with societal ills" would be more appropriate? It's a little wordy, I know, but I'm sure there's an eager branding agency that can work it out.
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