To understand how radicalized the sports media industry is on the topic of race, understand that Stephen A. Smith has become the voice of reason in the discussion.
Last Saturday, White Sox shortstop Tim Anderson, a black player, alleged that Yankees third baseman Josh Donaldson, who is white, oozed racism when he referred to Anderson as “Jackie,” a reference to Jackie Robinson. Anderson opened the floodgates for sports pundits to pile-on Donaldson.
The sports media never forgoes an opportunity to call someone racist. And they didn’t here, but for Smith.
Monday, Smith defended Donaldson on First Take:
“Here’s what upsets me about this: we are having a conversation about race, and I can’t sit here and tell you that anything Josh Donaldson said was racist,” Smith said. “I think that it is actually wrong for people to attach racism or ‘racist’ to Josh Donaldson today or for this incident.”
For context, Anderson called himself the modern-day Jackie Robinson in 2019, saying he would bring fun back to baseball. But, as Donaldson says and Anderson has not denied, the two players then joked about the nickname shortly after.
So either Anderson now takes offense to a nickname he gave himself three years later, or he’s an opportunist who is weaponizing racial tensions in the country to his advantage.
There’s no proof that Donaldson’s comment echoed a racial undertone. However, a white athlete in question must now prove to those who cover sports that they are not racist. Racist is the default.
The demand for racism in sports so strongly outstrips the supply that pundits often have to manufacture examples. And that’s a line too far for Stephen A. Smith.
As he did for Donaldson, Smith defended Chris Russo from a similar attack earlier this month.
During a playful debate about Warriors forward Draymond Green complaining about fans booing him, Russo joked to Smith that Green should “shut up and play” basketball. Smith found humor in Russo’s remark, but JJ Redick, the analyst on the desk for the segment, insinuated that Russo’s comments were racist.
First, Smith defended Russo in the moment:
“Let’s calm down because I’m glad you pointed out, JJ, that it’s not a race thing because with ‘Doggy’ it’s not,” Smith said.
“You know, you do have old school fans that lament the fact that you got a lot of folks out there that are just saying ‘enough already’ like he does. Now people like me and you, we think differently, but there’s a whole bunch, I encounter it all the time, there’s a whole bunch of ‘Mad Dog’ Russos running around, I’m here to tell you right now.”
Then, Smith called into Russo’s radio show to defend him again:
— Chris Mad Dog Russo (@MadDogUnleashed) May 5, 2022
What makes this telling is that Smith has a long history of exaggerating the context of a debate around race. In fact, one of the reasons Smith didn’t like working with Max Kellerman was because he could never outwoke Kellerman — few can.
So that shows just how irrational this iteration of sports media is. Even Smith can’t play along.
And for that, I credit Smith. He’s the most powerful individual in sports media. What he says matters. It immediately diminishes the scale of the attack when he challenges an accusation of racism.
Unlike his colleagues, he looks at each subject matter individually. He’s not operating from the premise that all white people are a problem, as Bomani Jones declared.
No one else in the mainstream sports conversation will challenge the accepted norm on pressing issues. Even if others disagree with a specific pile-on, they are afraid to think differently aloud. Ultimately, just one side of the argument is ever heard.
Except for now.
Stephen A. Smith is currently the only person in sports media who is willing to have an honest conversation about race.