On Monday morning, in a taped interview before the airing of ESPN2’s “First Take” program, host Stephen A. Smith apologized for comments he made last Friday suggesting women were at least partly to blame for domestic violence against them.
Smith’s original comments came in light of the two-game suspension the NFL handed down to Ray Rice, the Baltimore Ravens running back who can be seen on video dragging his unconscious fiancee out of an elevator after allegedly knocking her out.
“I made what can only amount to the most egregious error of my career,” Smith said. “I ventured beyond the scope of our discussion by alluding to a woman’s role in such heinous matters, going so far as to use the word ‘provoke’ in my diatribe. My words came across that it is somehow a woman’s fault. This was not my intent. It was not what I was trying to say.”
Smith never did get around to saying what he was “trying to say.” His apology lasted just shy of two minutes, before co-host Cari Champion gave him a reprieve, giving her take on domestic violence from the female perspective.
“I haven’t been the victim of domestic violence, but I have seen it first-hand,” said Champion.
When the segment ended, “First Take” went back to doing what it’s known best for, launching into a spirited debate about the true meaning behind LeBron James’ decision to wear No. 23 with the Cleveland Cavaliers.
ESPN missed an opportunity to make a strong statement against domestic violence by devoting some real airtime to the issue. Rather than give a canned apology and leave, Smith could have participated in a substantive discussion of domestic violence in sports. If the fire around Smith was too hot Monday from a PR standpoint, the network could have asked any number of other male voices to do the same. They might have even brought in a former professional athlete to discuss the topic. God knows they have enough on their payroll.
There remain more questions than answers about why domestic violence persists in professional sports, and what can be done to stem the tide. How do professional locker rooms treat players with a history of domestic violence arrests? What can leagues do differently to educate their employees? Where has the media fallen short in its coverage, and what should happen next?
Champion didn’t lay into Smith for his comments. She went as far as to thank him for clarifying his earlier comments. But ESPN’s Michelle Beadle wasn’t quite so supportive. She expressed outrage—via Twitter—after Smith used words like “provoke” when referencing the role victims play in domestic violence situations.
Beadle represents something rare in sports media: a female voice with strong opinions. While there are plenty of women on ESPN and on local sports networks, the majority are shoehorned into host or sideline roles. Men do most of the “real analysis.” Beadle’s voice was a much-needed counterpoint, and it stirred up some healthy discussion of domestic violence, but given the amount of he-said, he-said noise in the rest of sports media, Beadle’s comments barely made a dent. Since Smith’s original comments Friday, Beadle has not been given air time to discuss domestic violence.
Misogyny is endemic in our sports culture, and not just at the national level. Last week, “Dennis & Callahan” co-host Kirk Minihane found himself in hot water for calling FOX reporter Erin Andrews a “gutless bitch.” Like Smith, WEEI’s Minihane, came under fire for the comments, and like Smith he went back on the air to apologize. But in issuing his ‘apology’—if you can call it that—Minihane added fuel to the fire, commenting on how Andrews’ career prospects might change if she packed on a few pounds, fifteen to be exact. Within days, FOX pulled its anchors and all advertising from WEEI and the network suspended him.
Money talks, but so, too, did the hosts of “Dennis & Callahan” all week, making light of Minihane’s comments and blaming, in part, a media conspiracy that they alleged includes both Boston.com and The Boston Globe. In other words, Minihane could have been more eloquent, but it’s the oversensitive, politically correct, elite media that’s really to blame. Did Minihane have the “right” to say what he did? Sure. But no matter how you spin it, calling a female peer a “gutless bitch” is pretty low, even for sports radio.
Maybe the level of discourse in sports media shouldn’t come as a surprise given how much support these types of rants get. When Smith announced Monday morning that he’d be addressing Friday’s comments, hundreds of supporters scampered over to his Twitter page, piling on top of sexist comments they deemed particularly clever.
WEEI hosts John Dennis, Jon Meterparel, and Steve Buckley were back at it Monday (sans Minihane), admonishing Smith’s words but seemingly excusing the ESPN host, citing the pressures and rigors of being “live” for hours at a time.
“Once in a while you’re going to step in it,” said Dennis, speaking from what we presume is experience.
Dennis and company then steered the discussion toward Beadle, asking whether she violated ESPN’s social media policy by daring to speak out against a colleague. At the mention of Beadle’s name, a dismissive chuckle could be heard among the WEEI co-hosts. Didn’t Michelle Beadle realize that the only thing more likely to get you in trouble than being gutless is being gutsy?
Our most prominent male sports voices aren’t speaking up when women are wronged. Is it because they have nothing to say? Or is it because they think their audience doesn’t want to hear it? Either way, it’s a cycle that continues to feed itself, and one that has to stop.