Stephen A. Smith is many things: a journalist, a television personality, a loudmouth, a millionaire—the list goes on. What Stephen A. Smith can never be considered is someone who minces words.
The star of weekday sports debate show First Take—which is moving from ESPN2 to ESPN for the first time come January 3rd—is already a household name, but many are unaware of the years of hard work and sacrifice that put Smith in that position. Only the 21st African American to earn the status of a general sports columnist, the path towards sports television fame/infamy for the Winston-Salem State University grad was much more difficult than simply firing up a Macbook and emptying his thoughts on YouTube or a blog.
The self-proclaimed "loud-ass, loudmouth educated black man" recently took some time to speak with Complex Sports about his winding road to success, First Take's move to ESPN, and his best advice for young people hoping to make it in America.
(This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.)
What does First Take mean to you personally in terms of your career?
It’s obviously very, very important to me. It’s been a hit show for a long time now—the last three years. It’s still going strong contrary to some of these reports out here. Still the No. 1 show on ESPN2 and we’re moving to ESPN. For me personally it’s incredibly pivotal because it’s a two-hour appointment viewing platform every weekday morning. And for somebody like me who prides myself on being in a position to make a difference and to make an impact as opposed to just collecting a paycheck, it’s a very pivotal thing for me. It means the world to me.
It seems that a lot of people don’t understand the work that goes into these kinds of shows and especially one like First Take. What is your response when folks question the journalistic integrity of the show?
Well, I actually don’t give a damn. I really don’t give a damn. And the reason why I don’t is because I have a journalistic background. I’ve been a journalist for over 24 years. I was a journalist before the advent of social media. Before ESPN.com and others came. When I was on the come up you had to work your way through. Work at high schools then at colleges and then the pros. And then after all of that becoming a columnist for a particular league, and then ultimately becoming a general sports columnist. I became the 21st African American in American sports history to become a general sports columnist.
I KNOW WHAT IT’S LIKE TO LIVE OFF TUNA FISH AND KOOL-AID.
I worked my way here—there was no silver spoon in my mouth. It wasn’t given to me. I had to bust my ass to get to where I am. Most people didn’t have to go through what I went through and work their way to where I worked my way to. I’ve been in a press box. I’ve been on a beat grinding. Unlike a lot of dudes today, I made my name by breaking stories. As a beat writer, on the high school level, on the collegiate level, and then on the pro level. My credentials can speak for itself and anybody in the field of journalism who wants to question that, name the time and place and I’ll show up.
It’s funny, I was younger but I remember some of those Philadelphia Inquirer bylines. I’m a Philly area guy and remember you as a columnist. Not sure everyone else does.
Well, they don’t, but that’s like a compliment in some respects because they’re caught up in seeing what I’m doing now and they’re not paying attention to the résumé that got me to this point. They’re focused on the fact that you’re here. And they’re looking at the product and they’re saying, “What gives them the right?”
I remember I was being interviewed once and saying to the students—because they were comparing me to bloggers and stuff—don’t ever put a blogger on the same level as me. I mean no disrespect by that. What I’m saying is they didn’t have to go through the process that I had to go through to get to where I am. That’s the difference. I said they might be every bit as talented if not more. But the question is: Did you have to go through the process? When I was younger I watched Howard Cosell and said, “I could do that job.” But I had to go through the process. I looked at Bob Costas I said, “I could do that job.” I looked at Bryant Gumbel and said, “Maybe I could do that job.” But I had to go through a process, and when you go through the process and the political terrain and everything else that comes with it in order to climb that ladder and break through that proverbial glass ceiling, people don’t get to diminish that just because they don’t like me. I ain’t worried about that. That’s my point. And that’s why I don’t worry about any of that.
I said the only people that get to sit up there and talk about me that way that have any degree of credence are people who endured the process and made it out the way that I did. You don’t get to be a Marine and wear that uniform and represent your country if you can’t make it through boot camp. I made it through boot camp and then some. I’m a loud-ass, loudmouth black man who is educated. Do you have any idea what I had to go through to get to where I am? And you think some blog or somebody else is gonna affect me now that I’m here? I know what it’s like to live off tuna fish and Kool-Aid. And wonder whether or not I was going to be able to afford gas. I know what the trenches are like. So I don’t worry about it. Please—I don’t give ‘em a second thought.
What advice would you give to young people of color in today’s world who are looking to break into media—and maybe not necessarily in a camera-facing position—just in general. What advice would you give to someone, maybe someone 19, 20, 21 years old looking to make it where you are?
First of all, do away with the slogan “You can do what you want to do, you can be what you want to be.” That’s a lie. We all have an obligation to discover what our gifts are, and based off of that gift—your personal gifts given to you by God—it’s those gifts that can propel you to ultimately achieving dreams. You might wanna be an NBA player, but you’re better off as a wide receiver. You might wanna be a lawyer, but you really know medicine and science and are better suited to be a doctor. Whatever your gifts are you have an obligation to diligently pursue and explore what that gift is and then go from there.
THE SLOGAN 'YOU CAN DO WHAT YOU WANT TO DO, YOU CAN BE WHAT YOU WANT TO BE.' THAT’S A LIE.
Because I don’t care what you love to do, you can’t convince me that you’re going to love being a failure just because you’re doing something that you might wanna do and it ain’t getting you anywhere in life. It’s not improving or elevating your quality of life compared to that of others. It’s not allowing you or facilitating you to take care of the people you love, etc. So this notion of “Oh, I wanna do something, so that’s what I’m gonna do cause I wanna do it”—no. It’s whatever your gift is and how you can exploit it to the max. To assist in you becoming all that you dream of becoming, that’s what your goal needs to be.
And then after that you’ve got to get on your grind and be about the business of understanding that nobody owes you anything. They know this, and far more instances than not they’re never going to give you anything dammit even when they do owe you. You have to accept it, you have to embrace it, and you have to move forward because that is the real world. My boy Jeff always says to me, “Fair is a place where they judge pigs.” It does not exist. So everybody crying about fairness and all of this other stuff—get the hell over it. It’s not applicable. What’s applicable is you finding out what your gift is, finding whether or not it’s in demand, and approaching it from that perspective moving forward. That is the advice I would give to young minds in this generation today.
To me that sounds like good advice, and it also sounds like you’re a little sick of the coddling of people in this country when it comes to that sort of thing.
I am. But it’s not that I’m sick of people wanting something. I’m sick of them recognizing they ain’t gonna get it and allowing it to be used as a crutch to stagnate our growth and our ability to prosper. I didn’t get to where I am by laying down and lamenting what I don’t have, because it’s never going to be given to me. I can complain just as much as the next person, but when I get up every morning the first order of business is my grind. It’s me pounding my feet to the pavement and going after it. Not lamenting the fact that I’m going to be denied those opportunities. Because I’m hoping every day to break down walls, and the pursuit of breaking down those walls can’t happen if I’m not grinding.
It’s not to say that our complaints are not legitimate, that our frustrations are not valid—of course they are. Of course it makes sense. But the difference between winners and everybody else is winners look ahead. And they ain’t about the business of, “Oh my goodness, they just gonna stop me anyway.” It’s alright to recognize what they’re doing, even lament it sometimes because it’s good to vent and exhale, but not to the point where it stagnates and stymies you from being progressive. You’ve got to move forward.
Wish that tone and that sentiment was more common so people could have a more realistic or encouraging view of their future careers.
Well that’s the operative word—realist. Because that’s who I am. I love my people, man. I’m not anti anybody, but I love my people. And when I say things and come across as a bit too outspoken and stuff like that, or a bit pissed off, it’s because I want folks to succeed. I don’t want folks to fail. I want everybody to be even more successful than even I’ve been blessed to have become. I think there’s room for a lot more of us to be successful. But we gotta be about the business of being on our grind. And sometimes I don’t think that’s the case.
ANYONE WHO’S THINKING ABOUT GETTING PAID AT THE EXPENSE OF THEIR EMPLOYER IS A FOOL ON THE VERGE OF BEING BROKE.
You’re obviously on a very popular ESPN TV show right now, but from my perspective it seems more and more people are consuming their media via mobile. Five, 10 years from now, do you think ESPN will still be primarily consumed via TV? How do you see the future shaking out in terms of this media game?
Well, there’s no doubt they’ll be an adjustment period. You know, people are watching things through their mobile devices. That’s what people don’t realize. People look at a show and they say, “Their ratings are not the same.” So let’s say for example I may have 50,000-100,000 less people watching me on television on First Take. But 10 million more people are watching me on digital. So companies have to figure out how audiences are watching their content, and then the second order of business is to always come up with new and innovative ways on how to monetize it.
This is a capitalistic society for a reason. And anybody who doesn’t pay attention to generating revenue is fighting a losing battle. Everything that I do—anything that I do—for ESPN or anybody else that I work for, my No. 1 priority is to make them money. Priority No. 2 is to get as much of that money as I possibly can. That’s my No. 2 priority. First get them revenue by being as excellent as I can possibly be at what I choose to do and then ultimately generate money for myself because of it after. They must get paid first, I get paid second. That’s how corporate America works. Anyone who’s thinking about getting paid at the expense of their employer is a fool on the verge of being broke. Because that’s just not smart business.
That sounds a lot like going back to that “realism” word that you pointed to before, just being realistic about how corporate America works.
That’s how it works. They get paid first. And then as a result, you get paid. That’s how it works, and if you can’t accept that, then go be unemployed.