ESPN is such a colossus that it was big news when Michelle Beadle challenged Stephen A. Smith over his misguided remarks on Friday about domestic violence. They are ESPN stars, with nearly 3 million Twitter followers between them. The ESPN ecosystem is such that any misstep by any of its boldface names can start a digital storm, even if the subject is inane — or Tim Tebow.
Domestic violence is anything but silly, though it is difficult to discuss intelligently on a sports debate show like “First Take’’ on ESPN2 or without an expert or a victim to provide experience and balance. But Smith was riffing Friday on “First Take,’’ on which he and Skip Bayless are the loudmouthed commentators. Smith was discussing the NFL’s two-game suspension of Ray Rice over allegations that he beat his fiancée, now his wife, in a casino elevator, and Smith suggested that women should avoid provoking men into assaulting them.
Staking out a position for a longer punishment for Rice is not brave. Anyone could see that NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell had been too lenient. But then Smith went verbally reckless.
“In Ray Rice’s case, he probably deserves more than a two-game suspension, which we both acknowledged,’’ he said, as Bayless nodded. “But at the same time, we also have to make sure that we learn as much as we can about elements of provocation. Not that there’s real provocation, but the elements of provocation’’ — at this point, without letting him finish his sentence and as he delved into amateur forensics, you had to wonder which “elements’’ he was talking about, when women should accept responsibility for being victimized and why those elements do not add up to “real provocation.’’
Beadle, who can be tart, funny and challenging on Twitter, responded at first by writing: “I was just forced to watch this morning’s First Take. A) I’ll never feel clean again B) I’m now aware that I can provoke my own beating.’’ Then she posted: “I’m thinking about wearing a miniskirt this weekend…I’d hate to think what I’d be asking for by doing so @stephenasmith. #dontprovoke.’’
And then: “I was in an abusive relationship once. I’m aware that men & women can both be the abuser. To spread a message that we not ‘provoke’ is wrong.’’
This was bold stuff that probably violates ESPN’s internal social media policy, which warns employees against making personal attacks on one another. But Beadle is unlikely to be disciplined because she offered such bracing and smart responses.
Smith did not help himself when he responded, wondering why his words had been misconstrued but blaming himself for not being more articulate. “But be clear,’’ he wrote. “I wasn’t BLAMING women for anything. I was simply saying to take all things into consideration for preventative purposes. Period.’’
Smith has used his family history — he was raised by his mother and four older sisters — to provide an experiential backdrop to his so-called expertise. I do not doubt that being close to strong women in his family can make a man more sensitive, more acutely aware of how women feel about certain issues and more willing to fight for them if they are being abused.
But that does not make him an expert with the credentials to venture into the psychology or sociology of abuse. Sometimes I wonder if Smith needs to breathe a bit more, to get out of his rapid rhythm of commentary, to think about what he will say before he says it.
He offered no groundwork in his remarks for “preventative purposes’’ or “elements of provocation.’’ Do such provocations include, as Beadle suggested, the way women dress, or perhaps violently initiating a fight?
On Monday, Smith apologized for his remarks and acknowledged making “the most egregious error’’ of his career. He and Cari Champion, the host of “First Take,’’ taped the segment for a usually live program, because “this was an important and sensitive topic and there were specific points that Stephen wanted to make,’’ said Josh Krulewitz, an ESPN spokesman.
Smith said he had not intended to suggest that sexual violence was a woman’s fault and that “the failure to truly articulate something different lies squarely on my shoulders.’’ He added, without elaboration, that he had dealt with domestic violence in his family.
ESPN has not decided whether it will suspend Smith, but its decision may be clear: He was back on the air quickly, at least to apologize as soon as possible. The network said that he “recognizes his mistakes.’’
If he is not suspended, it suggests that we need to understand ESPN’s discipline handbook. How offensive need someone be to earn a week or more off? In 2012, two ESPN employees used the phrase “chink in the armor’’ in reference to Jeremy Lin, then a guard for the New York Knicks.
One of them, an anchor, got a 30-day suspension; the other, an editor who used the phrase in a headline on ESPN’s mobile website, was fired.
How does ESPN weigh its employees’ offensive remarks, regardless of how strongly they apologize? We shall see.