Stephen A. Smith is the ultimate low-hanging fruit. His job is to be low-hanging fruit; just noticing anything he says feels like dead-horse beating. But over the past few weeks, Stephen A. has transformed himself from garden-variety shill and troll into a kind of cartoonish super-troll. He’s the ultimate embodiment of a comment section men’s rights activist crossed with some sort of distorted, unentertaining version of Virgil, the unquestioning bodyguard of wrestling’s Million Dollar Man. He is Super-MRAn.
Stephen A. has been in Floyd Mayweather’s pocket for a long time. Back in 2010, Mayweather found out that Josie Harris, the mother of his three of his children and his former fiancée, was dating NBA guard C.J. Watson—a matter he confirmed by going through her iPhone without permission to find text messages. Mayweather and Harris were no longer a couple at this time, and Mayweather was living with and engaged to another woman, but, still unable to contain his jealousy, he went to Harris’s home at 5:00 a.m., with a member of his entourage in tow, and proceeded to beat her and threaten her life in front of two of their children. (Both subsequently confirmed the matter to police and in recent interviews). Mayweather fled the home before police arrived but took the cell phone, a common tactic of batterers, to prevent Harris from reaching out to her new boyfriend. The evidence against Mayweather was overwhelming and damning—he eventually copped a plea to avoid more serious charges—and given his already-lengthy rap sheet for domestic violence, the whole affair was unfortunately entirely in keeping with his character. Except, apparently, to Stephen A:
Stephen A. Smith had trouble believing that Floyd Mayweather, who had already been involved in six incidents involving five different women that led to arrest or citation before the Harris beating took place, had “put his hands on a woman.” He mocked the idea that Floyd had stolen an “iPod,” when in fact he’d engaged in the common batterer tactic of stealing his victim’s only means of communication with her support network. And, worst of all, he suggested that Josie Harris, lying in the hospital with cuts, bruises and a concussion, the mother of three of Floyd’s children, was inventing the story to extort money from the boxer. It was repulsive on every level.
Smith’s position on domestic violence didn’t mature after that rant, either. Most famously, last year, when discussing the Ray Rice controversy, he suggested that it was common for battered women to provoke the violence against them. (He was implying that Janay Rice was responsible for having been knocked unconscious.) This led to an immediate and deserved outcry, culminating with popular ESPNer Michelle Beadle publicly expressing her disgust at having to share an outlet with Smith. The network had no choice: it suspended Smith, who offered a lame apology and briefly kept his mouth shut on the subject.
Alas, he did so only briefly. While his colleagues John Barr and Bob Ley were preparing an epic Outside the Lines report on Mayweather’s documented history of abuse, Smith was spending his time oooohing and ahhhing at Mayweather’s car collection for a piece which ESPN would elect to give better airtimes and more prominent positioning online than the substantive, damning OTL broadcast. And that wasn’t all he was doing.
In an April 8 episode of First Take—it for whatever reason only started getting around today, as Awful Announcing explains here, but better late than never—Smith complained about coverage (like, well, ours) that exposes Mayweather’s history of “alleged” (his word) domestic abuse. Smith was particularly upset that Manny Pacquiao claimed he was going to use that history as motivation to teach Mayweather a lesson, something Smith felt was unsporting to say. Turning to host Cari Champion, Smith continued, “When you take the position that you take, Cari, I have no problem with it. You’re a woman, you should feel that way.”
Champion explained that her position was based on both Mayweather’s documented—not “alleged”—history of domestic violence and his generally misogynistic attitude towards women. Smith doubled down on his position. “Her position is clear. Because she’s a woman, and this is how she feels.”
There you have it. According to Smith, the only people who can or should hold Mayweather’s history of domestic abuse, misogyny, and being protected by the media against him are women. And since women’s opinions clearly have little to do with boxing, it was upsetting to Smith to see Pacquiao inject them into this fight.
ESPN howls when the subject of their Mayweather coverage comes up. When our Tim Burke wrote a piece the other day asking why the network was acting as the boxer’s promotional mouthpiece in a heavily-promoted infomercial masquerading as news coverage, ESPNers raged about how Stephen A. doesn’t represent them or the network. The former is true: Keith Olbermann, Sarah Spain, and Michelle Beadle have all called for boycotts of Mayweather’s fights, and they, along with others like the first-rate journalists at OTL, deserve credit for confronting the fact that Floyd Mayweather is a serial batterer. ESPN, as they like to say, is not a monolith.
The fact remains, though, that for years ESPN has downplayed and ignored Floyd Mayweather’s history of domestic violence. It’s allowed boxing correspondent Dan Rafael to largely pass it over when not treating it as a character-building exercise. It’s allowed Stephen A. Smith to smear the victims and promote Mayweather in a special that will be aired on ABC. And we now see that just a couple of weeks ago it allowed him to use its broadcast time to state outright, as a defense of the champion, that domestic violence is an issue for women and, by implication, women alone—a statement so nakedly indecent that it would get you kicked off most online message boards, let alone network airwaves.
Stephen A. Smith is not a journalist. He is not a sports fan. He is, to all appearances, a shill auditioning for a job with Mayweather’s organization once ESPN inevitably gives him the boot. That day cannot come soon enough. Until it does, everything he does comes with the approval and imprimatur of the world’s most powerful sports broadcaster, and it will taint everything else they do.
Daniel Roberts (IronMikeGallego) is a longtime boxing fan and occasional contributor to Deadspin. He can be found on Twitter @drobertsimg or at email@example.com.