Stephen A. Smith Suspension Exposes ESPN’s Bigger Problem

ESPN has a problem. It wants to be in the thick of things, to be part of every major debate pertaining to sports. But its commentators and analysts – rooted as they are in trade deadlines and X’s and O’s – can be loose cannons, occasionally getting in over their heads when pressed to address topics that go beyond their areas of expertise.

Stephen A. Smith – suspended for his remarks about domestic violence pertaining to the NFL’s questionable action regarding Baltimore Ravens running back Ray Rice – is just the latest to engender controversy in one of these scenarios.

First, Smith awkwardly suggested that women can play a role in provoking situations of domestic violence. Then he began apologizing and seeking to clarify those remarks via Twitter. Then he went on air and apologized some more. And then ESPN still opted to discipline him.

But the channel can’t really have it both ways. If the goal is to be provocative – and those participating in these free-for-alls are, inevitably, encouraged to be colorful and bicker – it only stands to reason people are occasionally going to say questionable or offensive things, especially when tackling hot-button political issues.

At this point, it’s hard to keep track of all the flare-ups. There was basketball analyst Chris Broussard expressing his faith-based disapproval of homosexuality in relation to Jason Collins becoming the NBA’s first openly gay player. Rob Parker was suspended for questioning quarterback Robert Griffin III’s “blackness.” Mike Ditka called Jonathan Martin a “baby,” saying he wouldn’t want to coach him, for the bullying accusations that resulted in the NFL acting against Miami Dolphins teammate Richie Incognito. Elsewhere, another former coach, Tony Dungy, created headaches for NBC Sports with his comments about Michael Sam.

And so it goes. Athletes are people, after all, and thus the stories about them can be as ugly and troubling as anything humanity can dredge up. But a channel that obsesses so relentlessly over what city LeBron James calls home is often ill-equipped to do a quick pivot and deal with matters that touch on harassment (workplace or sexual), gay rights or race.

ESPN has taken some steps to bolster its journalistic bona fides, from hiring Keith Olbermann – who, love him or hate him, has a background in covering news that goes well beyond the playing field – to columnist Jason Whitlock. For the most part, though, the network is too often left relying on whoever’s available to cover the story of the moment – a prisoner, like virtually everyone else, of the vagaries of the 24-hour news cycle.

Corporate justice is never dispensed with complete uniformity in these instances, and one can argue till the cows come home about who made comments that merited a suspension and who didn’t.

The bottom line, though, is that if ESPN continues to cover the breadth of sports in all its messy, complicated glory – and expects to do so by featuring people who spend most of their time preoccupied with the minutia of the game – well, let’s just say the PR department should keep several versions of a boilerplate apology on file, just in case.

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