Yesterday, ESPN announced the week-long suspension of TV personality, radio host, and writer Stephen A. Smith, a gregarious talking head best known for his daily appearances on ESPN's morning program, First Take. Smith's suspension came as a result of the now-infamous comments he made regarding the controversial Ray Rice situation in the NFL, and a victim's role during instances of domestic abuse. More specifically, Smith advised women to "make sure [you] don't do anything to provoke wrong action" and said "we have to learn as much as we can about the elements of provocation." Understandably, numerous members of the media, advocates for the victims of domestic violence, and even Smith's own colleagues were furious. Smith is perpetuating a wrongful cycle of blame among the subject of domestic abuse; he's articulating a mindset which blames the victim for being in the way of the hand that struck them. Even worse, when he was called out for his comments via Twitter, Smith took to social media to try at restating his beliefs more eloquently. It didn't go well.
On Monday morning, Smith apologized for his comments on-air, saying, in his own words: "I made what can only amount to the most egregious error of my career." In such a case, it seems justified that there would be consequences for Smith's actions. In fact, if we're to take Smith by his word, a week-long suspension for a blunder of this magnitude seems more like a forced vacation than a punishment. Still, however, supporters of Smith have emerged from the woodwork to express their distaste for ESPN's decision. In the wake of the suspension's announcement, Twitter has generated more than a few opinions on the matter:
Based on the discrepancy in public reaction, it's clear that what is "the truth" for some is a lie for others. In issues of domestic violence, it's what Brian Pinero, the director of digital services for the National Domestic Violence Hotline and loveisrespect, calls victim-blaming. "Sometimes, I don't think the media recognizes the sort of insights and thoughts they put forward as 'victim-blaming'," Pinero said during a phone call with Complex. "When Stephen A. Smith started using the word 'provoke', he started talking in a way that kind of made blaming victims acceptable. I think there's no explanation that you can give [for the Ray Rice incident]. All it does is validate or reinforce incorrect or negative stereotypes around the issue that have been going on for a very long time now."
More importantly, as Pinero points out, these issues can have a trickle-down effect on ESPN's younger audience. First Take is a joke to a lot of us. We all know that Smith and his co-host Skip Bayless have acted like clowns in the past. But the show also has a dedicated following. ESPN keeps it on for a reason. "I think when you're a young adult and you're trying to develop a healthy relationship or boundaries in a relationship, when someone like Stephen A. Smith says something on a popular show it's going to possibly reinforce a negative stereotype about what is acceptable behavior as a man, and the idea that anytime, if you touch anyone, is okay," he said. "I think the media, especially when you're the leader in sports, plays a huge part in that." And this problem is bigger than Stephen A. Smith. It's an issue that transcends ESPN.
Smith gives false credibility to those who blame the victim. He allows those "bar convos" to see the light of day. Along with Smith's colleague Michelle Beadle's social media criticism, MSNBC's Goldie Taylor penned a series of tweets detailing her harrowing struggles with domestic violence. Smith would be wise to read them. Everyone would. Taylor's saga doesn't deserve to be abridged, but I will highlight one tweet for you to focus on while you're reading through her story:
What is an "element of provocation"? Is it shrunken laundry? Smith's supporters want to blame ESPN for encouraging Smith's words and for regularly hosting inflammatory content, the type for which First Take has become infamous. Sadly, they want to paint Smith as the victim in this situation, beholden to what they view as a greedy company obsessed with creating viral content via controversy. In some ways, ESPN is accountable for this fiasco; First Take should've been taken off the air a long time ago, at least as long ago as the last time Smith made comments of this nature.
However, we can't hold Smith's hand through this situation. We can't ignore the possible impacts that Smith is having on our culture's conception of domestic abuse. ESPN directs the conversation, but it doesn't write the script for Smith. Even if it did, it's still Smith's choice to say what he's saying. And what he's saying only emboldens the ignorance surrounding the Ray Rice situation, and domestic violence as a whole. "I think that when people want to gravitate toward Stephen A. Smith in order to validate their belief, they really don't have a clear understanding of what it's like to be a victim and to be in a relationship of power-and-control," Pinero said. Smith potentially creates, allows, and excuses their misunderstanding.
Smith certainly had the right to say what he said. Anyone in our country does. But he doesn't deserve our praise for exercising his rights. Give that to Beadle and Taylor, who have each given us a resounding education thanks to their responses. Their words help lift some of the pressure to stay silent. But there's still work to be done. The level of difficulty associated with escaping your abuser and sharing your story for the sake of others is both tremendous and heartbreaking. Smith triggered an important conversation with his words, but this is only a result of his stardom. In everyday life, people like Stephen A. Smith only make it harder by reinforcing the culture of victim-blaming.
"I think, in cases of both sexual assault and domestic violence, when women come out to address something in their lives or to try and get safe, they face having to defend themselves for it," Pinero said. "You really put a microscope on whether you're believable, and that's terrible."
There are many reasons why defending Smith is indefensible, but ignorance only goes so far. Misunderstanding can be fixed. Organizations like loveisrespect are dedicated to helping kids form strong, safe relationships. "We have young men who contact us all the time who had no idea about how they were behaving or what they were doing to their partner," Pinero said. "Young men do reach out individually and ask these questions. I think that we're able to provide a service that allows all young adults to ask questions and get good information from their peers."
Formerly, an investigator for Child Protective Services, he also described his own experiences and his past shortcomings in fully grasping the severity of domestic violence: "I would investigate issues when I would see a woman being abused, and she would still stay with her children," Pinero said. To him, it seemed like an easy decision to leave. "When I got into the domestic violence movement, I quickly recognized how hard it is to leave a power-and-control situation, such as when your financial life is tied up in a person and they control whether you're going to have a roof on your head."
There are resources for understanding out there. Maybe, hopefully, while Smith is sitting on the sidelines for a week, he'll use them. There are people who have overcome the same misconceptions as Smith. Maybe, hopefully, he'll reach out to them. Maybe, hopefully, his followers will do the same. Until then, standing with Smith only represents the danger of having a public figure like him on the air.
Gus Turner is a news editor for Complex. He tweets here.