Stephen A. Smith knows that controversy sells and polarization equals popularity in the talking head sports business. After what feels like an extended vacation, Smith is back on his ESPN flagship program “First Take,” and he jumped right out of the window with an impromptu wish to set up an “old media” debate set.
But his choice is eyebrow-raising: sports radio jock Mike Francesa. Francesa and Russo had a legendary, afternoon drive sports talk show called “Mike and the Mad Dog from the late 80s until 2008, and the two have been a polarizing pair relatively under the radar for fans of color or the non-New York media audience.
Now Smith wants to bring the gang back together again for his viewership.
Stephen A. Smith wants to get Mike Francesa on First Take 👀 pic.twitter.com/aFkoqbh6e0
— Brandon Contes (@BrandonContes) August 17, 2022
“You are one of the pioneers if not THE pioneer with Mike Francesa. Who, by the way, I got to get him on this show one day too, with you. You understand what I’m saying? I mean it would be my honor to have Mike Francesa too.”
“You can’t beat me, you’re never gonna beat him,” Russo retorted.
“I AIN’T SCARED! I’m never going to beat him, but I’ll try, damn it,” Smith followed up playfully.
NFL analyst Sam Acho just sat in a screen box in the middle, trying to hide his surprise at Smith’s random admission.
Even since Chris Russo has appeared on the show, he has pushed the button of every former player-analyst like Jason Williams, Ryan Clark, and JJ Reddick. He even set off Draymond Green, purveyor of the “new media” concept in sports, who remixed his name to “Bad Dog” for his hot takes.
“Shut up and play, will you please,” Russo said vehemently during a “First Take” episode. “America’s tired of Draymond Green, and I deal with them constantly. The fans, San Francisco fans, are a different story. Be quiet and play, and we all know he’s got a great skill set for that team, but he’s so polarizing I can’t root for him.”
Francesa is on brand with Russo but has done even worse. In 2017, when the Supreme Court ruled that the musical band The Slants could use the offensive term for their band name, Francesa expounded the topic into the then-controversial name for the now Washington Commanders and fell right into the danger zone during his WFAN radio show.
“The feeling is that it’s going to be the same answer to the same question (about the Redskins),” Francesa said. “The only other debate is that they were talking about themselves. They all were Oriental-Americans who were part of the group. They were some kind of a musical band from Oregon, and they could not trademark the name ‘Slant,’ even though they were a group of young Oriental-Americans.”
After his producer told Francesa that the term was offensive to Asian Americans, Francesa wasn’t having it.
“You’re telling me that is considered a slight if you call someone an Oriental-American?” Francesa said. “What is the proper term then, so I want to get it proper since Oriental-American is now considered a slight? What would be not a slight?”
Imagine a “First Take” with the sports version of white rage on both sides of the aisle and a doting SAS in the middle. Smith is proving Draymond’s “old media” point while potentially being complicit in another term, toxic media.