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Review | Stephen A. Smith talks about debate TV shows and his new memoir


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Stephen A. Smith, the host of “First Take” on ESPN, is the most visible sports personality in America. His opinions, and the dramatic delivery of those takes, have made him enough of a cultural institution that he’s been parodied by “Saturday Night Live” and profiled by the New Yorker. Smith is also the author of a new memoir, “Straight Shooter,” out Tuesday, in which he details how he reached such heights. Smith writes of growing up poor in Queens, the son of West Indian immigrants, with a father who was unfaithful to his mother and unsupportive of him throughout his life. He also writes of losing his first TV show at ESPN and the long climb back. Smith talked to The Washington Post recently about his memoir.

The interview has been edited for length and clarity.

You spend all day arguing with people on TV. I couldn’t help but notice the cover picture of your book, in which you’ve got a pretty big frown. Do you consider yourself a grumpy person?

No. Anybody that knows me knows better than that. Matter of fact, my family and friends, they laugh all the time. They say people don’t have any idea how hysterical I am. … I’m far from angry.

You had a show canceled in 2007, and ESPN didn’t renew your contract in 2009. Did you think you might not have a future in this business?

I was unemployed, so, yeah. To grow up poor, wondering if you’d have enough food on your plate, clothes on your back, heating in your home — to wonder about those things and then graduate from that point to making over a million dollars a year as an adult, and then to go from there to making absolutely nothing … is an incredibly scary thing. … It was very embarrassing. … And also it was very scary because I didn’t know if I would ever be able to recapture what I once had.

There are people who believe that the proliferation of sports debate shows is bad for sports media. Why are debate shows good for the sports media ecosystem?

Debate shows are good because you’re being provided with different perspectives, and by and large, many, many people out there agree with one side or the other. Also, most sports experts are not real experts. Because of the years that I spent as a beat writer and then an NBA insider, I’m telling you at least 60 percent of the time, [people] are calling me to give me the goods, or they want to come on, or they want to make sure this storyline is put out over the national airwaves. … [Debate TV] was instigated, by the way, by politics. And that’s what makes me laugh when people complain. Excuse me, there were political debate shows long before sports debate shows ever came along.

It seems clear from the book how much you enjoyed working with Skip Bayless. Why was he the best debate partner you’ve ever had?

I didn’t have to show up to a morning meeting with Skip Bayless. … We can literally go and say “Start the show,” knowing we were going to disagree because he was a natural-born contrarian. I knew I thought nothing like him and he thought nothing like me. And that made our jobs very, very easy. Because with a debate you expect a back and forth and a butting of the heads. It didn’t have to be manufactured. … I never had to wonder what level of passion, what level of energy, what level of knowledge he was going to bring. I knew it was coming. And I knew I had to be ready to counter.

A lot of the book is about your journey back from losing your first show at ESPN in 2007. Do you now consider yourself the most important nonexecutive at ESPN?

I’m constantly told that I am by the bosses. They tell me religiously because of the ratings and the revenue that I bring in. … I don’t absorb it like, Wow, look what you’ve done. I receive it as pressure.

A few years ago, you had a meeting with an ESPN executive named Laura Gentile, who raised concerns about a segment you did comparing LeBron James’s wife with Steph Curry’s wife and how they should act. How important was that conversation for how you think about the show?

If we as men are sitting here having the conversation, and the conversation is about women, and then a woman confronts you about how awkward it is to hear men talk about what a woman should be, you do have to step back and say, “That makes a lot of sense.” Laura was absolutely right to point out how she found something offensive in that these men were sitting up here talking, but there were no women involved in the conversation.

You write at one point that the brand comes above all else, referring to ESPN, which I bring up because of the criticism you’ve received for the perception that you were somewhat sympathetic in a recent segment about Ultimate Fighting Championship President Dana White, after video showed him slapping his wife. Does the UFC being in business with ESPN impact what you said?

I don’t give a damn. I’m tired of people with that BS. You know, the fact of the matter is that he’s a married man. I spoke against him putting his hands on a woman just like I would anybody else. … You work at The Washington Post. Are you really gonna sit here with a straight face and tell me that you are free to go out there and say whatever it is that you want to say about a colleague within the walls of The Washington Post? Because I happen to know of situations where people have lost their jobs, because they’ve spoken out against one another within those walls you work at. I know what lines to cross and what not to cross for the most part. … Nobody came down from the company and told me what to say or what not to say or whatever the case would be, but in my mind, I’m fully cognizant of the fact that you have to speak with more caution about people that you work with.

A Memoir of Second Chances and First Takes

Gallery/13A. 288 pp. $28.99

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