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After Stephen A. Smith’s rant about Shohei Ohtani, his ESPN co-workers led the pushback

ESPN’s Stephen A. Smith works during Game 3 of the NBA Finals between the Milwaukee Bucks and the Phoenix Suns (Justin Casterline/Getty Images)
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A day after prompting a wave of external and internal criticism for his comments about Japanese baseball star Shohei Ohtani, ESPN host Stephen A. Smith apologized Tuesday during his morning debate show, “First Take,” as colleagues continued to rebuke him in public.

“I am a Black man. I religiously go off on minorities being marginalized in this nation,” Smith said at the top of the show. “The reality of the situation is that you have Asians and Asian Americans out there that obviously were very, very offended by what I had to say yesterday, and I just want to look into the camera and extend my sincere apologies.”

During Monday’s show, on the day that Ohtani was set to participate in the Home Run Derby on ESPN, Smith expressed concern about whether the Los Angeles Angels hitting and pitching sensation could help grow baseball in the United States without speaking English in interviews.

“I don’t think it helps that the number one face is a dude that needs an interpreter so you can understand what the hell he’s saying,” Smith said.

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After Monday’s show — even as ESPN colleagues were publicly critical of his stance — Smith doubled down on his comments in a short video posted to Twitter. “If you are a sport trying to ingratiate yourself with the American public the way Major League Baseball is, because of the problems that you’ve been having to deal with in terms of improving the attractiveness of the sport, it helps if you spoke the English language,” he said.

The comments drew swift and unusually public rebukes from a wave of Smith’s ESPN colleagues.

Clinton Yates, a writer and TV personality, wrote on Twitter that “speaking english is not a requirement to be a tremendous anything, nevermind baseball player.”

TV and podcast host Pablo Torre wrote, “Perhaps we shouldn’t ask the most multitalented player in recorded baseball history to cut up lil morsels of English soundbites and make airplane noises while spoonfeeding them to us too.”

Writer Joon Lee wrote, “Telling anyone — let alone a generational, one-in-a-lifetime baseball talent who’s currently doing something completely unprecedented — to just ‘learn English’ completely underestimates and devalues the difficulty of immigrating to the United States.”

By Monday evening, Smith had issued his first apology in a statement posted to social media, writing that “with all the violence being perpetrated against the Asian Community, my comments — albeit unintentional — were clearly insensitive and regrettable.” More than 80 percent of Asian adults say violence against that group is rising, according to a Pew Research Center survey earlier this year.

Tuesday brought the second apology. Smith also deliberately mispronounced the names of several Nigerian men’s basketball players on Monday’s episode following the national team’s exhibition upset of Team USA, for which he also apologized Tuesday.

ESPN’s top baseball reporter, Jeff Passan, and Lee appeared Tuesday on “First Take” to discuss Smith’s comments.

Passan, who wrote a story about Ohtani’s impact on baseball Monday night, referenced his young son caring about Ohtani’s mammoth home runs, not what he says or doesn’t say off the field. “That is the language that sells itself to fans,” Passan said. He also said Ohtani “is the sort of person who this show and who this network and who this country should embrace. We are not the ones who should be trafficking in ignorance.”

Lee, who was born in Korea and raised outside Boston, spoke to Smith on the phone Monday night. On “First Take,” he talked about how Smith’s comments landed in the Asian and Asian American communities. “The fact that this is even a controversy speaks to the larger fact that so much of the western media, American media, us at ESPN, are so unprepared to talk about Asian Americans in a nuanced way that speaks authentically to our experience in this country,” Lee said.

Smith is ESPN’s most visible commentator, working on NBA and UFC coverage in addition to “First Take.” He appears on ESPN’s morning show “Get Up!” and hosts a show on streaming service ESPN Plus. He also is the network’s highest-paid employee, with recent reports putting his compensation in the $12 million range, including payments to his production company.

He has come under fire for comments in the past, earning a suspension in 2014 for suggesting victims of domestic violence shouldn’t “provoke” the men abusing them.

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Smith’s comments about Ohtani and the blowback to them came a little more than a week after ESPN was roiled by a leaked video of Rachel Nichols, a host of the network’s NBA coverage, making disparaging comments about colleague Maria Taylor. Nichols, who is White, suggested Taylor, who is Black, earned a promotion to host NBA Finals coverage because ESPN was trying to correct its record on diversity in the wake of national protests and conversations following the killing of George Floyd.

Nichols was recorded in a private phone call without her knowledge. In the video, she says those hosting duties were contractually her responsibility, according to the recording that was obtained by the New York Times. That story was published days ahead of Taylor’s expiring contract and prompted a rebuke from NBA Commissioner Adam Silver and the National Association of Black Journalists, as well as a flurry of coverage and commentary. Nichols was removed as the sideline reporter during the NBA Finals but delivered her own apology on the air last week. The futures of Taylor and Nichols at ESPN remain uncertain.

After the Times story, ESPN President Jimmy Pitaro sent a staff-wide email in which he highlighted several companywide diversity initiatives. An ESPN spokesman said the note was already in the works before the Nichols controversy.

“[W]e have a much better story than what you’ve seen this week,” he wrote, citing mentorship efforts at the network and stats such as the fact that of ESPN’s 116 new hires this year, 52 percent have been people of color.

“By being proud of this progress,” Pitaro added, “we’re not trying to minimize how people are feeling.”

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