NBA

Stephen A. Smith offends Nigerians, Japanese people, and Hispanics

Jul 11, 2021; Milwaukee, Wisconsin, USA; ESPN reporter Stephen A. Smith prior to the Phoenix Suns against the Milwaukee Bucks in game three of the 2021 NBA Finals at Fiserv Forum. Mandatory Credit: Mark J. Rebilas-USA TODAY Sports

Stephen A. Smith became famous for his hot takes. However, when one goes out of their way to be controversial, they often find themselves in trouble. On July 12th, Smith made comments offensive to Nigerians, Japanese people, and Hispanics in the same appearance on First Take. While he did not appear to do so with malicious intentions, players and fans of those identities immediately took to social media to call out Smith for his offensive comments.

Considering that Smith is ESPN’s highest-paid employee (earning $10M a year), this is a bad look not just for him but for the whole company. He also hosts two shows (First Take and Stephen A’s World), meaning he has one of the biggest platforms.

Smith’s blatantly offensive comments on Shohei Ohtani

The worst segment of Smith’s appearance on First Take regarded Shohei Ohtani. To many, it appeared blatantly xenophobic and racist. The debate was whether it is a good thing that Shohei Ohtani is baseball’s number one attraction. He is the most unique player the sport has ever seen in the eyes of many. He is a superstar on the mound and at the plate. The slugger of Japanese descent leads the league in home runs at the moment while maintaining his place as the ace of the Angels’ pitching rotation.

However, Smith tried to make a case that Ohtani is a bad face for the league. His justification was that he doesn’t speak English. Smith said he didn’t think Ohtani’s need for an interpreter served baseball well and that he should learn English. He then went even further to say that he believes a white player like Bryce Harper or Mike Trout would make a better face of the league.

He concluded his remarks on Ohtani by saying that he believed fans are less likely to watch or attend games if a player cannot speak English. The whole 109-second segment was one offensive remark after another.

Smith’s Sammy Sosa impression

In the midst of his xenophobic take on Ohtani, Smith referred back to the 1990’s home run competition between Mark McGwire and Sammy Sosa. He spoke about how it was good to see two guys competing for the crown. Smith said that was good for baseball because both guys could speak English, although Sosa had an accent. He then proceeded to imitate Sosa’s accent, a blatant example of cultural appropriation. Furthermore, returning to Ohtani, it is raucously offensive to say that two guys doping is better for baseball than an elite non-English-speaking player.

Smith’s comments on Team Nigeria

The other issue arose during a segment about Team USA’s defeat at the hands of Nigeria in a basketball exhibition. Leading up to the Olympics, the Americans are supposed to dominate international play. The American team features a great coach and NBA all-stars. Thus, Smith wanted to voice his disappointment that they lost to a Nigerian team with zero NBA starters. However, rather than focus just on America’s disappointment, Smith also directed offensive comments towards the Nigerian team. He referred to the team as a group of nobodies. And more importantly, he mispronounced and then stopped trying to pronounce players’ names. This is a sign of disrespect and racism.

Two players of Nigerian descent took to Twitter to express their outrage. Josh Okogie, who played 16 minutes for Team Nigeria against the USA, focused on Smith’s lack of respect for his ancestors and respect for the Nigerian flag.

Jordan Nwora, who did not play because he is in the Finals with the Milwaukee Bucks, also spoke out in defense of his country. He focused on Smith’s butchering of names and also how he offended Japanese baseball superstar Shohei Ohtani. It seemed that Nwora wasn’t just offended by this incident but by Smith’s tendency for offensive and hurtful comments in general.

“Stephen A offended Ohtani and Nigeria. In his apology to Ohtani, he identified as �African American�. Don�t claim the culture if U want to disrespect it. If U can say Krzyzewski, U can say Agada. Unprofessional, period.”

Jordan Nwora

Backlash and an apology

Smith immediately faced severe backlash for his offensive comments. Athletes called him out. Fellow commentators told him to apologize. Fans were upset. People who didn’t watch sports but saw the clip wondered what was happening. It was one big mess for Smith. While the Sosa imitation and Nigerian basketball gaffe were bad, the Ohtani comments were definitely the worst of the bunch. They exhibited unfiltered xenophobia towards a superstar. At the moment, Smith appeared completely oblivious to the harm of his words.

Smith posted an apology on Twitter, saying that his “comments –albeit unintentional– were clearly insensitive and regrettable.” He also began the next day’s show with another apology. However, his apology felt insincere to many. He made his comments on the air, and they clearly meant what he said. The comments on his apology tweet made many complaints. Some couldn’t forgive Smith just because he apologized. Others believed he was stirring up controversy for TV ratings. And still, others were angry that he didn’t apologize to Nigerian basketball and Sammy Sosa. And there are plenty of other reasons people had for their anger, including that Smith seems to find himself in these situations regularly. If it were a one-time occurrence, maybe he would garner some sympathy. But Smith frequently seems to say the wrong thing and end up offending someone or some group.

In a career that has been filled with controversy, this was one of Smith’s most offensive shows. It remains unclear if it will have an impact on his following or career with ESPN. But one thing is certain. Smith was wrong for his offensive comments. He knows it. Fans know it. Athletes know it. As an entertainer, Smith loves controversy. But for some reason, he failed miserably in his attempt to walk the line on July 12th’s show.

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