Sports journalist Stephen A. Smith, radio show host and host of ESPN’s “First Take,” spoke about issues ranging from race and leadership to current basketball debates and the weakness of Tim Tebow’s arm in Lohrfink Auditorium at the fifth annual Michael Jurist (SFS ’07) Memorial Lecture on Monday evening.
Smith brought his usual candidness and energy to the talk, as well as his signature dramatic changes in volume and pitch, while relating sports to his life and the lives of Georgetown students.
“You have to understand that everything in this world, in essence, to some degree, is about branding, even though it sounds like a bad word because it sounds too commercial, too orchestrated and choreographed,” Smith said. “At the end of the day it’s real, because even when you’re talking about you, you’re talking about branding you.”
He spoke about expectations and standards, and emphasized that students represent not only themselves but also their family names and their university.
“I have an obligation to hold up that standard that ESPN has established, and it’s a bit harder for us, do you know why? Because who owns ESPN? Walt Disney. Haven’t you all heard of the movie ‘Frozen’? I’ve seen it seven times. … They don’t sell sports, they don’t just sell animation, they don’t sell radio. They sell happiness,” Smith said. “You can’t sit up there getting arrested, being seen in mugshots.”
Sebastian Hart (MSB ’17), who attended the lecture, felt that he could relate to this sentiment.
“I thought the whole conformity, acquiescing, sort of playing the role that you’re expected to be played by corporations, fitting in, instead of going your own way … that really rang true for me,” Hart said.
Smith detailed his path through education before he attended Winston-Salem State University, and how early struggles, such as being held back in fourth grade, motivated him throughout life.
“They were telling me I was stupid and I wasn’t going to be anybody. And I said, ‘We’ll see.’ And from that day forward I was on a mission. And my mission was one thing, above all else: No one would ever laugh at me again,” Smith said. “You will laugh with me, but you will respect me, because I’m going to bring it. And you’re not going to have any choice but to respect me.”
On sports, Smith discussed branding as it relates to money, citing the NFL’s $23 billion television deal and the NFL brand as an example.
“Listen up: Everything’s about money. They try not to tell you that. We really want you to behave well. We really want you to just work hard and do the right things. … Just be about the team. Ladies and gentlemen, have you ever heard of the notion that there are lies in every truth?” Smith said. “That would apply here, because that’s not all they want. See, what they want you to do is protect the brand, because the brand makes money.”
Students who showed up for a sports discussion said that they were surprised at the topics Smith chose to broach.
“I know he always talks about sports, obviously, on his talk shows,” Ben Ringwood (COL ’15) said. “But him just talking about leadership and holding yourself accountable and personal branding was a nice change of pace. It was good to hear from him, and he was very genuine about leadership.”
Smith also generalized his discussions of branding and money while talking about the problems that exist in the world outside of college.
“The problem that I’ve noticed is that if you’re not prepared to deal with the world that awaits, you contribute to extending the problem instead of alleviating it. And the problem that you have as a younger generation is that the world that we live in has looked upon you to resolve issues,” Smith said.
During the question-and-answer session, Smith talked about New York Knicks owner James Dolan’s “nonexistent” basketball acumen.
The only topic of discussion Smith ruled out involved his “First Take” co-host Skip Bayless, with whom he regularly engages in intense debates.
“I don’t like to talk about him too much,” Smith said. “I have to deal with him two hours a day. I’m not trying to add to that responsibility, to add more hours of Skip Bayless in my life. Trust me when I tell you, two is enough.”