Stephen A. Smith Can’t Stop Running Into The Same Problem When He Discusses The WNBA

Stephen A. Smith and First Take have spent a lot more time this season discussing the WNBA than usual, especially in June when the NBA playoffs are still going on. That’s due to the sharp increase in interest in the league, fueled by the arrival of Caitlin Clark, who is rapidly entering the LeBron James and Tim Tebow realm where everything that they do or is tangentially related to them becomes fodder for debate on sports television.

The issue is, the WNBA is not a league that Smith is intimately familiar with in the way that he is the NBA and NFL. While Smith certainly isn’t always right when he talks about those leagues, he is extremely well-connected in the NBA and NFL worlds and does have some genuine insight, on top of the pontificating that makes for excellent television. With the WNBA, he clearly does not and, as such, when he attempts to speak as an authority on things, he can find himself wading into some deep waters and receiving pushback from those who are, in fact, authorities on the league.

We saw this a week ago when, after the Chennedy Carter-Caitlin Clark incident, Monica McNutt called out Stephen A. on air for not using his platform to talk about the WNBA to this extent until this year. Most recently, Stephen A. went off about USA Basketball’s decision to not include Clark on the roster, calling it a marketing disaster. He also got preachy to Andraya Carter when she pushed back about not everything needing to be a marketing decision.

This interaction perfectly illustrated the disconnect between Smith’s approach to sports and the way most everyone that covers the WNBA approaches them. For Smith, everything is about seeking out the most eyeballs to drive his value to the company so he can have more leverage in his next contract negotiation. That has always driven what he talks about on First Take, as he religiously pours over the viewership numbers, tracking what topics engage the audience the most — if you listen to an interview with him, there’s a good chance he’ll bring up how the show has been “number one” for a very long time. He will hammer those topics until the actual audience (not just annoyed people on social media) starts to tune out. Everything is a business decision, with the bottom line in mind.

In this instance, Smith cannot understand how anyone wouldn’t be thinking about the ratings when it comes to putting together the USA Basketball roster. He simply cannot wrap his head around not being able to bend one’s long-term principles for a short-term boost of engagement that could lead to more eyeballs (and, therefore, more money) coming in down the road. Is a roster for a basketball tournament put together with that in mind? Of course not! The goal is to win a gold medal with the best possible collection of talent. But Smith is not looking at this through that lens, he’s looking at it as someone whose life has been about the relentless pursuit of television ratings.

That runs almost entirely contrary to how anyone that covers women’s basketball has had to operate for their entire career, and it’s partially why they are less like to play Smith’s game on First Take. Women’s sports have long been viewed as a stepping stone for those in the media, and those that have chosen to make it their career to cover women’s basketball care deeply about the sport and bristle at the notion it can’t be the pinnacle. They also want to cover it with a certain level of respect that isn’t always the case in the sports media. Those that cover the sport on a day-to-day basis are some of the best in the business at making sure they’re approaching their subject matter with a certain degree of professionalism and with a deep, nuanced understanding of every element of the league. This goes beyond just the players and the Xs and Os, and includes things like the cultural and societal issues that women in sports must navigate.

As such, distilling things down to classic tropes and the narratives that have dictated how many men’s sports get discussed on a national scale isn’t appealing, which runs entirely contrary to the essence of Stephen A. and his show. The result has been some tense moments on First Take, and the occasional shock and dismay on Smith’s part that he’d receive measured, pointed pushback to what he’s saying, rather than someone yelling at him on the other end. Smith has always determined the terms of engagement on his show, but with the WNBA, he’s running into the one thing that he’s never been able to handle: calm, collected dismissal.

In other sports, even the smartest analysts will often play the game with Stephen A., understanding that they’ll have an opportunity somewhere else to dive into more nuanced takes. But those who cover women’s basketball don’t seem keen to do the same, and understandably so. They’ve fought for years to have a chance to talk about the sport they love on a major platform, and as Carter notes, they aren’t willing to sacrifice their expertise in the name of making for better TV drama.

That doesn’t work on First Take, a television show that is built around the idea that everything can and should be debated, with things taken to the extreme time and time again. And yet for how frustrated Smith clearly is that his tried and true formula keeps backfiring when the W pops up, it’s nowhere near as frustrating as his attempt at presenting himself as an authority on the sport, when he’s simply dipping a toe in for the moment while the audience is hot.