American media are once again demonstrating what a measly toolkit they have when it comes to addressing the awful thoughts and statements of their highly paid talent.
ESPN has announced that commentator Stephen A. Smith will take a break from the ESPN2 show “First Take” and ESPN Radio for a week. He’ll be back on Aug. 6. As Deadspin has noted, the network doesn’t use the word “suspend,” but that’s how it’s being interpreted.
This disciplinary measure, such as it is, addresses Smith’s horrific comments last Friday on “First Take.” On the blabbing agenda was the meager punishment — a two-game suspension — issued to Baltimore Ravens running back Ray Rice for allegedly striking his then-fiancee on an elevator in Atlantic City. The suggestion that Smith put before his viewers was unthinkable: “In Ray Rice’s case, he probably deserves more than a two-game suspension … But at the same time, we also have to make sure that we learn as much as we can about elements of provocation. Not that there’s real provocation, but the elements of provocation.”
Perfectly logical outrage ensued, as did a familiar media dance: Smith issued what appeared to be a heartfelt apology on air — he called his words the “most egregious mistake of my career” and shamed himself for talking about provocation — and then ESPN announced that he would be absent from the airwaves for a bit.
ESPN did what it did because of popular demand. People wanted punishment. CNN’s outstanding morning anchor Carol Costello made a direct appeal: “It is nice that Smith apologized, but I wonder if ESPN will do what it ought to do: Suspend Smith.” As a point of comparison, Costello noted the harsh punishments — a 30-day suspension and firing — accorded to two ESPNers responsible for using the phrase “chink in the armor” in reference to Asian professional basketball player Jeremy Lin.
— Brent @ Kleinman Law (@brentjkleinman) July 29, 2014
— Sara Hourwitz (@SaraHourwitz) July 30, 2014
And there’s a crowd of Twitter users who are disappointed with the suspension for other reasons — i.e., they somehow think Smith did nothing wrong in talking about a woman’s role in provoking a beating from her fiance:
— Mike Castellanos Jr. (@MikeFSU10) July 30, 2014
— Quez J. (@_Quezz) July 30, 2014
Whatever pressure ESPN was feeling will probably taper off now. It has done what other media outlets do when their people say harmful things. It has done what CNN did to Roland Martin for his flurry of homophobic tweets in February 2012. And it has done what MSNBC did to Mark Halperin when he used a vulgar word for President Obama.
Suspensions are silly, as the Erik Wemple Blog has argued before. They exist to solve a PR crisis and absolutely nothing more. The suspendee takes some time off, perhaps to hang with family or hit the golf course or e-mail with all his friends about how he got a bad rap. Eventually he returns to work, as if nothing ever happened. In that respect, a suspension facilitates oblivion.
Whom does a suspension serve, aside from critics hungry for evidence of punishment? It doesn’t serve the general cause of domestic violence awareness, though ESPN president John Skipper has pledged that there will be “constructive discussion” on this topic within ESPN. It doesn’t serve viewers, many of whom like Stephen A. Smith. And it doesn’t serve Smith himself, who issues his apology and who will probably never return to this touchy subject. Better to have assigned the guy to spend a week preparing a special on domestic abuse.
“As many of you know, there has been substantial news coverage in the past few days related to comments Stephen A. made last Friday in the wake of the NFL’s decision to suspend Baltimore Ravens running back Ray Rice for two games following charges of assaulting his then fiancée, now wife, a few months ago.
“We’ve said publicly and in this space that those remarks did not reflect our company’s point of view or our values. They certainly don’t reflect my personal beliefs.
“We have been engaged in thoughtful discussion about appropriate next steps. Those conversations have involved a diverse group of women and men in our company. Our women’s [employee resource group] has added to the conversation, and going forward, I know they will help us continue constructive discussion on this and related issues.
“Stephen has called what took place ‘the most egregious mistake’ of his career. I believe his apology was sincere and that he and we have learned from what we’ve collectively experienced. I’m confident we will all move forward with a greater sense of enlightenment and perspective as the lasting impact of these last few days. I want to thank all those whose thoughts have contributed along the way.”