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  • Writer's pictureKenneth Flakes, PE

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

Stephen A. Smith of ESPN, host of First Take, and commentator for NBA Countdown
Eugene Powers | Shutterstock

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, the media and social media have widely criticized Smith. Some of the criticism has been fair, but other criticism lacks perspective.

Below I offer my takeaways from Smith’s comments to add context to the discussion.

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

I think the response to Smith’s comments about Rihanna is more about protecting 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. In a guest appearance on The Breakfast Club, even Angela Rye said, “Can we as a culture get past pitting Black women, Black men, Black people, against each other? Even if it is passive.”

I 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. Many Black women believe 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.” If Smith had known 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 debated Rihanna and Beyoncé for years. Many have been asking for a Rihanna vs. Beyoncé battle on Versuz. It is quite funny that many people 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 requested.

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 quickly apologized once he learned of the public criticism on social media, but I think 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 defended himself more 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 must promptly tell Smith 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 promotes 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 bit of grace.

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

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

Intent matters and Smith does not appear to be an opponent of Black women. In his podcast and regularly on First Take, Smith states that five women raised him, 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 will always be a group of people who 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 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, it works for Smith in this instance. 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 now gives opinions on politics, social issues, pop culture, and more. Smith must learn that debating these topics sometimes requires a different tact than debating sports topics.

However, this “brouhaha,” as Smith refers to it, 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 needs to be smarter about when and how to articulate his opinion.

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