Stephen A. Smith’s Xenophobia And The Price Of Damage Control

On Monday, as we all prepared to enjoy the festivities of MLB All-Star Monday night in Denver, with the Home Run Derby, Stephen A. Smith dominated the headlines for all the wrong reasons after his comments on First Take that morning. The words were about Shohei Ohtani, the do-it-all already megastar baseball player for the Los Angeles Angels.

After fumbling names of players from the Nigerian basketball team following their huge upset of Team USA, he then proceeded to go on a rant concerning Ohtani being the face of baseball, saying it isn’t something the sport needed because he speaks through a translator. Of course, that latter point caused quite a stir and even garnered a ton of response from some of his own ESPN colleagues over on Twitter.

Point blank, the comments were awful and played right into the xenophobic tropes that foreign players have dealt with for years across all sports.

Smith initially tried to clarify his statement, but to no avail, and once he realized that, he then issued an apology for his “regrettable” comments, saying he “screwed up.” Tuesday morning was more of the same as he opened First Take saying he was “wrong, period.”

Colleague Joon Lee an Asian-American who was one of the most vocal on social media was given ample airtime to discuss why those “regrettable” comments were so hurtful to hear. He also pointed out the issues sports media as a whole has in dealing with Asian athletes.

When ESPN uses baseball insider Jeff Passan to assist in damage control, one has to believe it must’ve rubbed plenty of folks the wrong way. Passan gave an impassioned explanation as to why Ohtani is precisely the type of player and person that First Take, ESPN as a network, and baseball as a whole should embrace fully, further noting he is the embodiment of chasing the American dream.

I believe Passan is correct in everything he said, and yes, I believe Ohtani should be celebrated across sports media. Being a magnetic, seemingly endlessly upbeat personality on the field who continuously shows joy for the game constantly, without even expressing it verbally. And if he does want to say it verbally, that’s what he has an interpreter for, and if that makes him comfortable, I’m more than okay with that.

In addition, Smith neglected to mention that Saul “Canelo” Alvarez is the current face of boxing as a non-English speaker. When mixed martial arts was practically erasing boxing from a combat sports fan’s collective subconsciousness, Alvarez, in the post-Mayweather era, was and is the biggest draw in the sport.

For Smith to say they’ve barely mentioned Ohtani on First Take as a way to clean up his mess, Passan’s rebuttal was that’s the fault of ESPN and the show itself, not Ohtani’s.

Blasting Smith was the correct thing to do, and he seems to have taken that in and realized just how off-base his comments were. But with that being said, we have to see just how long this lesson in humility sticks with him.

One clear thing is there is no gray area here for his comments with his ESPN colleagues and how quickly he took them back; his on-air apology has made it clear and abundant that he’s seen that.

The country has recently dealt with Asian hate, and no, this wasn’t one of those instances, and I won’t take it that far.

However, the comments were unnecessary and borderline ignorant.