I get it. Stephen A. Smith is a necessary annoyance on the sports landscape. He provides comic relief and “shock value” to a large number of fans who eat up that sort of stuff. It’s not my thing, but fine, let him and ESPN treat every one of his opinions as if they have just been delivered from on high. It’s annoying, but it doesn’t hurt anyone.
But let’s not confuse that with this crap Smith continues to pull — and get away with — on First Take when he, without prompting, starts talking about his female colleagues’ looks on air.
Smith, whose track record when it comes to issues surrounding women is more than spotty (see here and here as just two examples), most recently crossed the line Wednesday on First Take. As a conversation between Smith, Kimberly A. Martin, Chris “Mad Dog” Russo, and Marcus Spears was winding toward a commercial break, Smith inexplicably launched into a public service announcement directed at guys he knows wanting to date Martin.
“To the fellas out there, you can’t have her. You’re bums,” Smith said while interrupting Martin. “You know you dogs. Stop texting me about trying to get with Kimberly Martin. It ain’t happening!”
The uncomfortable look on Martin’s face, as she seems to do her best to roll with “Stephen being Stephen,” says it all. But to make matters worse — and that takes some real doing here — Russo sits by silently and lets Martin take the brunt of this garbage, while Spears starts agreeing with Smith!
“I’m so glad you said that,” Spears said to Smith. Martin then rightfully and incredulously asks Spears, “Why are you glad?” To which Spears replies, “Because people be asking me.”
All the while the tenor of the exchange, while clearly awkward for Martin, is framed as one of humor and good-naturedness, and Martin is forced to do her best to “play along.” And that’s the heart of the problem here: This is what women have been — and continue to be — forced to do in these workplace situations: Play along. It’s just boys being boys. They’re just paying you a compliment, sweetie.
Somehow, though, the misogyny here is even more coded and insidious. Why does Smith or Spears feel they need to be the gatekeeper of who Martin does or doesn’t “get with?” She’s a grown woman who doesn’t need their “protection.”
I guess this shouldn’t surprise anyone that this is the environment fostered and tolerated by ESPN, though it is no less appalling. If this is the threshold of sexual harassment allowed on camera, imagine what the hell goes on in Bristol when the cameras are turned off. Actually, we don’t have to imagine. The problems on this front at ESPN are well-documented.
This isn’t the first time that Smith has been guilty of this unprofessional creepiness, either. A few weeks ago on First Take, Molly Querim took exception to the altered tone Smith used in addressing Martin when she agreed with one of his points.
“You know you could just say I agree with Stephen, there’s no crime in that,” Smith said with a bad sort of Barry White intonation.
Querim shot back, “Why do you have to say it in that tone though?”
Smith went on to make a joke about how his voice is always sexy, but the problem is, none of it is funny. JJ Redick is a decent-looking guy who has appeared on First Take often, yet we don’t see Smith or Spears randomly start talking on air about how hot he is and how so many of their friends want to “get with him.”
And guess what? If they did do that to Redick, it wouldn’t be acceptable either, but here’s the difference: The inherent power disparity that exists, both physically and socially, when a woman is subjected to that sort of objectification wouldn’t come into play. So, Redick could brush off or even take it as a compliment and then return to his life of being a man and not a sexual object. But for a woman, this is nearly impossible to do because men in our society have been conditioned to view women as physical objects/possessions first, and sentient beings second.
None of this is revelatory but needs repeating again and again because supposedly “evolved” and “educated” men like Smith and Spears — and Russo, tacitly approving with his silence — continue to think this sort of behavior is harmless and acceptable.
It isn’t. And for all the big talk of “being an ally” and “supporting women” that has come from recent movements like #MeToo, the fact that this behavior is viewed by most men with a shrug or as “Stephen A. is a clown and isn’t worth the attention” is equally unacceptable. And that attitude is a huge reason that women in sports media — and society, at large — still have to deal with their bodies being elevated above their brains.
Hey, guys, it’s 2023. Can we please pick our knuckles up off the ground and start acting like it?