Stephen A. Smith on the State of Sports Journalism, Touching the ‘Third Rail,’ and Whether He's Underpaid

Photographs: Getty Images; Collage: Gabe Conte

Stephen A. Smith has been sports media’s ubiquitous star for more than a decade. As the host of First Take, the entrenched king of daytime sports TV, he has become an unparalleled personal driver of intra-ESPN news cycles, saying and doing things that became fodder for the Worldwide Leader’s other big properties. He is more famous than the vast majority of the athletes he covers. Depending on one’s feelings about Smith’s showmanship and debating style, he is unmissable or inescapable. As of this month, though, Smith is angling to be something else for the industry: its narrator and chronicler.

Smith’s latest project is Up For Debate: The Evolution of Sports Media. It’s a three-part docuseries just released on the network’s ESPN+ streamer. As the show’s executive producer and most frequent interviewee, the series is his account of sports TV’s shift toward the low-cost, fiery debate programming that ESPN birthed and Fox, TNT, and a million podcasts have imitated over the decades—which is to say, it doubles as Smith’s autobiography, since his genre now defines much of sports media.

If you take a dim view of embrace-debate culture, you may see Up For Debate as the sports media version of, say, an Exxon-produced documentary about climate change. But that’s not quite right, as the series gives considerable time to some of the harshest critics of both Smith and the genre he popularized. (Dan Le Batard appears frequently, including to tell Smith he hates what Smith has done to the industry.)

Smith talked with GQ about his motivation for making the series, his approach to his job, how he feels about his role as a starting gun for all sorts of ESPN programming, if he’s paid enough money, and who should be his boss’s next boss. The conversation is lightly edited for clarity and length.

In this project, you take on a role as a custodian of sports journalism’s history. What made you feel like you should do that?

Well, first of all, I believe in what we do. I believe in the industry, I believe in the pioneers that set the stage for people like myself to be where I'm today. There would be no Stephen A. Smith if it was not for Howard Cosell, the Bryant Gumbels of the world, the Stuart Scotts, the John Saunders, the Michael Wilbons, the Bryan Burwells, and so many others that paved the way doing what I do. And so to me, when we look at the world and the landscape that we're living in, in this day and age where so much stuff seems haphazard, anything goes, or what have you, I do feel a bit responsible.

People are inclined to look at my bombacity or my demonstrative tendencies from time to time when I'm on the air. Look at my resume: It's stoked in journalism. That's where I started: New York Daily News as a high school reporter, Philadelphia Inquirer, CNN/Sports Illustrated, Fox Sports, and then ESPN. My career is stoked in journalism. I'm not just running my mouth. There are standards that I had to live up to. There are tenets that I had to follow and make sure that I didn't violate. So, I've always been very big on making sure that people know I'm about the industry. I'm about the professionalism that comes with it. I might have strong opinions, but I pride myself on being fair-minded. I try not to get personal, and I focus on the pursuit of the truth, not opening my mouth to just say something. That's not what the foundation our industry was built upon. And I make sure that everybody is reminded that I recognize that.

Your series raises a point I hadn’t considered about newspapers. Ask most people, “What happened to newspapers?” and they’ll tell you the Internet or the ad market happened. The doc theorizes that another part of it, in sports, was that guys like you realized television was a better career destination, and that drew people from one side of sports media to the other.

But it wasn't just that. Of course you’re going to pay attention to where the money is. Nobody's about to be a hypocrite here. But the real impetus for it all was that the newspaper industry appeared to be dying. The advent of dot com came into play, sports talk radio became a big deal, and then look at the nuance of it all: You and I could sit here right now and speak for one minute, that's it, and take up more space than we were allowed to have in a newspaper, because you were designated 800 to 850 words and there was a certain allotment of space that was afforded to you. And you always had so much more to say. And then lo and behold, other professions come along and not only is it more profitable monetarily, but it also is more profitable and more prolific in terms of space to do your work to the best of your ability.

Do you then think sports journalism is in a better place—or I should be specific, that it serves audiences better—now than when the newspaper was the primary means of talking to a fan?

I think yes, for the most part, because it doesn't have the limitations that we once had when we were restricted to the newspaper industry. Television was neutral. It prided itself on being neutral. Everybody wanted to be Ted Koppel. You're just giving the news. And that was it. And then all of a sudden, the advent of SportsCenter and Sports Reporters and all of these other elements came into play where you started seeing opinions, where you saw these newspaper guys on television. In one half-hour, you could discuss about 10 different topics, but when you wrote three columns a week you were limited to three subjects. And that was the difference.

Now, of course, there are things that would've never happened back in the day. People just opening their mouth, running it devoid of facts, devoid of context, not really caring. No, that wasn't going to be tolerated back in the day, but I do believe by and large, the community is better served because there's room for more prolific voices. There's more that's being spoken about and pontificated about, if I dare use that word. And as a result, everybody is getting fed to some degree.

There are people who think the brand of sports journalism that you’re at the vanguard of contributes to people running their mouths, to things getting out without a filter in a way that wouldn't have happened in the old days. What is your view of that?

Well, I would say that's B.S., and I would say that the people in the industry who would dare say that, especially about me, let's go on a public platform and debate that. Name the time and place, and I'll show up. The fact of the matter is that I was hired at ESPN because of my journalistic background, and the reason why I've been entrusted to do what I do on the platform that I've done it on over the years is not only because I've been successful, it's also because by and large, I've been responsible as a journalist. I don't just run out there and speak. I actually cultivate sources. I actually do my homework and research. I have a history of being connected to the things that I actually cover. It's not a secret. It's not breaking news to see Stephen A. in a locker room, to see Stephen A. in a press box, to see Stephen A. talking to athletes, coaches, executives. All of this stuff comes with the job.

If anything, the industry should be held responsible because of what it has allowed. You've gotten to a point where you allow people devoid of my resume to come into the business as if they had the resume to do the things that they do. You might see me debating with somebody like I'm in the backyard at my house about a relatively innocuous subject, but then I'm interviewing the commissioner, and my tone is different, and my delivery and my presentation are different. Or then something happens of a serious nature, and all of a sudden I know how to dial it back and get into journalistic mode. It's not my fault that the industry itself has looked at people with less credentials and said, “You can come in here, too, and do it.”

What is your impression of the barrier to entry being so low?

It would be a damn shame if you are an athlete and all of a sudden your playing days are over and you are wondering what the hell you're going to do with the rest of your life because [of] the profession you chose as an athlete. You're stuck in that genre and you don't know how to venture out beyond that. I certainly don't want opportunities limited for anybody. You want the doors spread wide open. We are a capitalistic society. I believe in free market capitalism. I believe in creating different opportunities for folks so everybody can have a chance at the “American dream.” All of that is apropos.

I know lawyers and doctors who would quit their professions right now to do what I do for a living. Not only do they not get paid what I get paid, they would find what I do far more entertaining than what they do, and they wish that they could come on and do it. So you have to look at it from that standpoint. That doesn't mean the door should be closed. The door should always be open for capable individuals, but it's who's deciding who those capable individuals are and who's setting the path for what the criteria should be. Those are the people that need to be watched far more than somebody in my position.

Before Game 7 of the Pacers-Knicks series, ESPN aired shots of Jalen Brunson and Tyrese Haliburton walking into Madison Square Garden. And there was a shot of you, too, walking into the arena in a cream suit. It’s been viewed many millions of times on social media, in addition to the broadcast itself. Do you walk into a building knowing that you might be filmed by your employer in the manner we might expect to see a player heading into a game?

I don't look for the cameras. I certainly don't plan for them, but I'm fully aware that, anywhere I go, the cameras are rolling. I'm walking down the street. I go to McDonald's, the camera's rolling. I go to get some gas, the camera’s rolling. I'm an incredibly conspicuous face and I cover the world of sports. I understand that, and I understand the responsibility that comes with it, and I accept it. I don't run from it.

Point very well taken about what someone might tape on a phone, but it's also the network itself.

You mean ESPN?

Yeah, ESPN. You did a very funny couple of minutes on your podcast about if you could win a race to 100 points against LeBron if you started on 99, and it came down to the conditions of the game. And then the ESPN studio crew talked about it, and then Mike Greenberg talked about it on his radio show. You aren't just a commentator. You've become a subject, not just of people on the street with iPhones, but of the Worldwide Leader. I wonder what your view is of that.

I don't particularly like it. I just don't care. I don't think I should be the subject. I think the subjects we cover should be the subjects, but what I would ask you to do is pay attention to the digital stratosphere that we're living in right now. When you come on television, folks want to hear what you have to say. In the streaming stratosphere with the younger demographic, they want the friction. It's not even about the content, it's about the friction. What did this person say? How is this person going to respond to this person talking about them? That's how they go, and that's where that emanates from.

“Okay, so Stephen A. said this.” Well, I said that on my podcast. I was answering a question from someone on Twitter, right? Everybody said, “Oh my goodness, Stephen A. said he could beat LeBron.”' They left out the part that you're spotting me 99, it’s a game to 100, and all I have to make is one shot. And so of course I can throw up something, I can pray, I can untie his shoelaces and trip him. I know I can't shine LeBron James' shoes. I'm not on that level, but everybody was caught up in it.

But if you are on television, it's a magnet, and you’re successful on television, there's nothing wrong with the network capitalizing off the fact that they know people like watching you. I am on ESPN. I produce for ESPN. I make money for ESPN. Why wouldn't they use me if they see that something is resonating involving me in the media stratosphere that's relatively innocuous, that's not harmful to the brand or anything like that? Why would they not use it? I would do it if I were them.

Given all of that content that you provide, do you think that you're compensated fairly?

Well, I was, at the time that I [signed] my contract. [Smith signed a five-year, $60 million deal with ESPN in 2019, per the New York Post.] My contract is almost up, and that'll be a different conversation. What existed in 2019 is not necessarily the case in 2024. They know that. I know that. They know that I know that, and we'll talk, and we'll see what it materializes into, but I'm certainly not going to accuse my employer of being unfair. At the time that I signed my contract with ESPN, I was the highest-paid person at the network at the time. Things happen, years go by, other talent comes along, the market calls for a certain situation at that particular moment in time, you accept it, and you move forward.

That has nothing to do with just ESPN. It has everything to do with who Stephen A. Smith is, what I've become, what I meant to this industry according to their definition of success: ratings, revenue. I've done it, and if I were an NBA player, I wouldn't be looking at the team that I'm playing for and saying, “I deserve this.” I would be looking at the entire league and saying, “I deserve this.” Same principle applies.

You recently said that you are not a prisoner to the Walt Disney Company. Does that relate to you running your podcast independently, outside of ESPN?


What motivated that?

Independence. I've always had a desire to be independent. I love working for Walt Disney. I'm honored to be working for Walt Disney. They've been good to me, and in a perfect world, I'll be here for the duration of my career. A part of that is making sure that I'm allowed to branch out and do other things that I want to do that may not have anything to do with ESPN and Walt Disney. That's very, very important to me.

I want to show my production chops. I want to have my own production company. I want to have my own podcast that I own and I operate. I want to get into some acting. I'm going to start taking some acting classes. I already have a recurring role on the soap opera General Hospital. I want to do some more acting. I've got the bug now. I want to learn more about that profession and do some scripted content.

My own drama series, I can't announce it yet, but I've got a series that has been greenlit and folks will be hearing about that in a matter of days, actually. So all of these things are going on in my life. It's not to say that I want to go away or anything like that. I love being on First Take. I love starring on First Take. I love the audience depending on me to be there for them every morning at 10 o'clock Eastern Standard Time. I love doing that, but there are other things that I want to do. I have aspirations to do NFL. I still want to do some NBA, and again, I want to do the other things that I pointed to that don't have anything to do with sports. And in order for me to do that, I would have to have an employer that is cooperative when it comes to that. And if not, then I have to look to go out on my own and live my life.

In the series, you say that part of your job is to get close to “the third rail.” I spent a lot of time looking for things I could ask you that you’ve never talked about in public, but that’s hard. I was even going to ask who you are voting for, but you already shared that on the podcast. Is there an area of discussion that you just won’t touch or wouldn’t want to weigh in on?

I wouldn't say, “wouldn't want to.” Here's how I would answer that question: There are times where you have to think about people other than yourself. When it comes to me, Alex, I ain't scared to talk about anything, but my employer might be scared. My family might be scared. Friends might be scared. “No, no, no, Stephen.” For me, the only time I'm hesitant is when I have to think about ancillary things and how it would affect others, not myself. I'm not scared. I'll touch anything you ask me. Folks lie every day. They misconstrue your words, your intent, all to get a headline, and they do things that compromise you.

One of the things that I don't apologize for and I never will: Working for Walt Disney, I always feel a responsibility to make sure I consider them and how they'll feel in anything that I'm willing to tackle. It's not going to change my answer, but what it will do is help me decide whether I'm willing to tackle an issue or not. I'm going to speak my truth if I open my mouth. It's just that sometimes I'll open my mouth and sometimes I don't because I do feel an inherent responsibility to represent us.

Since I don't have that inhibition on the podcast, well, why not do it? But you also have sponsors and advertisers. Well, guess what? If something's uncomfortable for them and I wanted their support to help me build my podcast, I owe it to them to take them into consideration before I open my mouth, and that's all I'm saying. It is not going to stop me in most instances, but sometimes it gives you cause to pause and you do find yourself saying, “Is this really worth touching? Maybe I just need to leave this alone.”

In that spirit, do you have any thought on who should follow Bob Iger as CEO of Disney? [Iger plans to step down in 2026.]

At this point, a public relations professional interjects that it’s time for us to wrap up.

It's alright, I'll answer. Here's what I would tell you. I have a very good relationship with Bob Iger. Bob Iger, and I sincerely mean this, is the greatest executive I've ever seen. He is someone who has mentored me over the years and who I have profound respect for. I love Jimmy Pitaro, a leader at Disney, at ESPN, who's a great boss, but I love Dana Walden as well, who works under Bob Iger at Disney. You give me either one of those names, we’re in good hands. But I would tell you this: No matter what decision is made— I don't care, whatever board members you want to point to, whatever other individuals you want to be a part of the mix—Bob Iger's feelings and his reference should be given strong consideration. The man does not miss much, and even if he does miss, he has an uncanny ability to make up for it. Disney ain't what it is if it were not for Bob Iger. Despite our troubles, he is one of the greatest ever. And so as long as he's around to impact who his successor is, I'm comfortable for whoever that's gonna be.

Originally Appeared on GQ