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  • Writer's pictureKenneth Flakes, PE

Six Thoughts on Stephen A. Smith's Comments About Rihanna and Beyoncé

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Stephen A. Smith is a sports TV personality who works for ESPN. Smith recently appeared on Sherri Shepherd’s daytime talk show, SHERRI, to promote his new memoir, Straight Shooter. During the interview, Shepherd asked him about his thoughts on Rihanna performing at the upcoming Super Bowl. Smith’s response to Shepherd’s question, however, was quite puzzling and upsetting to many.

I don’t want to say I’m not excited. She’s fantastic. That’s not where I’m going with this. Ladies and gentlemen, she’s a lot of things. She’s spectacular actually. And congratulations on new mamahood. There’s one thing she’s not. She ain’t Beyoncé.

Since the interview, Smith has been widely criticized by media and on social media. Some of the criticism has been fair, but other criticism lacks perspective.

Below I offer my takeaways from Smith’s comments with the goal of adding context to the discussion.

1. Stephen A. Smith did not know his audience or the power of his words.

In my opinion, the response to Smith’s comments about Rihanna is more about the protection of Black women than his personal opinion about Rihanna and Beyoncé.

Shepherd’s audience is mostly women. Also, Rihanna’s fanbase consists largely of women. Her fanbase is called “Rihanna Navy” and is loyal and vocal. Smith had to realize that anything that could be perceived as a slight against Rihanna would not sit well with her fanbase.

Further, many Black women did not appreciate Smith’s comparison of Rihanna and Beyoncé. Even Angela Rye in a guest appearance on The Breakfast Club said, “Can we as a culture get past pitting Black women, Black men, Black people, against each other? Even if it is passive.”

I myself did not equate Smith's words with pitting two accomplished Black women against each other. But I am not a Black woman and I do not live the daily experiences of Black women. A lot of Black women believe that Smith’s comparison was unnecessary and harmful, so that must be considered.

Smith is quite experienced in debating sports topics on ESPN, but super sports fanbases like “Cowboy Nation” are quite different than super fanbases such as “Rihanna Navy” and the “Beyhive”. Maybe if Smith knew his audience better, he would have chosen his words more carefully.

Smith debates sports topics for a living but was clearly outside his realm when he decided to debate who was a better entertainer. Smith unnecessarily chose to walk into the lion’s den and ultimately did not leave unscathed.

The irony, however, and some may say hypocrisy, is that fans have been debating Rihanna and Beyoncé for years. Many have been asking for a Rihanna vs. Beyoncé battle on Versuz. It is quite funny that many of the people that are currently upset with Smith would likely be debating Rihanna and Beyoncé as Smith did on SHERRI.

2. Why are people even surprised that Stephen A would actually go there?

Stephen A. Smith weighs in on hot takes every weekday on the ESPN show First Take. The name of his podcast is called K[no]w Mercy with Stephen A. Smith where he addresses non-sports issues with “no mercy”. The name of his memoir is Straight Shooter.

No one should really be surprised that Smith turned Shepherd’s question into a debate topic. No one should be surprised that he offered his opinion even if it was not asked for.

To be totally fair to Smith, after his appearance on SHERRI, he stated on his podcast that Shepherd’s team asked him to be in debate mode for a First Take style segment for the show. Clearly, Smith chose the wrong subject to debate, but one cannot blame him for doing as instructed.

3. His apology was insincere.

Smith was quick to apologize once he learned of the public criticism on social media, but in my opinion, the apology was pretty weak.

In fact, Smith’s apology reminded me of the scene from The Boondocks episode “Smoking With Cigarettes” when Lamilton Taeshawn insincerely apologized for doing hoodrat things!

Smith’s apology was not as laughable as Lamilton Taeshawn’s, but he too was not sincere with his apology, and his podcast after the apology made his apology even less meaningful.

The name of Smith’s podcast episode is, “This Rihanna Brouhaha is Ridiculous”. That does not seem very sincere to me.

On his podcast, Smith spent more time defending himself than apologizing to Rihanna, Beyoncé, or their fans and supporters who may have been hurt. He called the public response “nonsense” and referred to some critics as “idiots”.

He even made himself out to be a victim of cancel culture!

Someone needs to promptly tell Smith that he is not a victim of cancel culture. No one is asking for his job. No one is ostracizing Smith.

Smith had a great opportunity to use his podcast to bring the focus back to his memoir, but instead, he doubled down on comparison.

4. Stephen A. Smith fatigue may partly explain the public reaction to his comments.

Smith is the lead commentator and executive producer for First Take. That is 10 hours of Smith a week. He is also an analyst on NBA Countdown during the NBA season and he hosts a sports talk show called Stephen A’s World, too. His K[no]w Mercy with Stephan A. Smith podcast airs three times a week. Smith makes various other appearances on ESPN shows throughout the year.

Smith has a recurring role as “Brick” on General Hospital and is also currently promoting his memoir on radio and television talk shows.

These days, Smith appears to be everywhere. Smith can be quite polarizing, so no one should be surprised that fatigue could be behind the public outrage with Smith’s comments.

5. Maybe the public should extend Stephen A. Smith a little bit of grace.

On The Daily Show, guest host Leslie Jones totally rebuked Stephen A. Smith because of his comments about Rihanna. "Act like your hairline and back the f*ck off", says Leslie Jones in regard to Smith's statement about Rihanna.

Others on social media have been quite harsh on Smith. Yet, despite all of the things that Smith has said since his appearance on SHERRI, maybe we should give him some grace.

Intent matters and Smith does not appear to be someone who is an opponent of Black women. In his podcast and regularly on First Take, Smith states that he was raised by five women and he lauds their effect on his life.

Also, to be fair to Smith, he bestowed many superlatives upon Rihanna on SHERRI. Smith used the adjectives “fantastic” and “spectacular” to describe Rihanna. Smith also said, “Rihanna’s music is fantastic. She's great. She's a sister. I love her dearly. I listen to her music. I’m going to support her til the cows come home.”

Honestly, there is always going to be a group of people who simply cannot handle an opinion contrary to theirs. I completely understand that no one asked Smith for his opinion. I also realize that people are entitled to respond to an opinion with their own opinion. But it seems like these days most people respond with visceral reactions to opposing opinions. Oftentimes nuance and context are not considered in responses. I think that Smith attempted to make this same argument but it was inarticulate and emotional.

6. Stephen A. Smith will benefit from this experience.

I’m sure that Stephen A. Smith did not wake up one day and say “let’s create some controversy” to sell books. So, although many PR experts will claim that the saying “there is no such thing as bad publicity” is a myth, in this instance, it works for Smith. Smith is certainly taking advantage of the added publicity. I’m sure that this will help his memoir sales and his overall brand.

Final Thoughts

Stephen A. Smith is a debate commentator who gives his opinion on sports. He is now giving opinions on politics, social issues, pop culture, and more. Smith will need to learn that debating these topics sometimes requires a different tact than debating sports topics.

This “brouhaha” as Smith refers to it, however, will ultimately benefit him because it will make him more recognized outside of sports.

Lastly, despite the unforced mistakes that Smith has made, at the end of the day, his opinion is his opinion and he should be allowed to give his opinion. He just needs to be smarter about when and how to articulate his opinion.

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