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The Credibility Sports Confers

July 10th, 2009 No comments

This morning I found out that former major league pitcher David Cone is to testify as a character witness at the trial of Supreme Court nominee Sonia Sotomayor. I learned this during a panel discussion on MSNBC that included Stephen A. Smith, former Philadelphia Inquirer sportswriter and ESPN talking head. I’m sure former ESPN star Keith Olbermann will have something to say about the list of character witnesses, as well.

I’m somewhere between CNN’s Anderson Cooper and the majority of my fellow, sports-obsessed Americans. Cooper, if you didn’t know, dissected a Palin spokeswoman’s defense of the daft governor’s decision to step down, and refused to be drawn into some inane sports analogy comparing Palin to a point guard: “I don’t know anything about sports,” he said. Whether he does or not, this was exactly the right response. He might as well have said: “Stop blathering and answer the question.”

But even for those of us who know or care about sports (I like exactly three of them), there’s something off-putting about the instant cred that sports stardom — whether as player or as pundit — confers. It’s not that the sports world doesn’t cough up bright, even brilliant, people. Among those who still concentrate on sports, Frank DeFord, Jon Wertheim (read his “Strokes of Genius”), and Diana Nyad come to mind as great journalists, writers, and observers. And those who have made the transition to other areas of interest are often pretty good, too. I think Olbermann, while a fellow traveler politically, sometimes lets his bluster and sarcasm get in the way of his message; but he’s bright and can be very effective. Stephen A. Smith I’ve not heard enough of to reach an opinion, but his constant talking over the other panelists this morning was irritating. David Cone is one of the most intelligent and thoughtful professional athletes you’ll ever hear. Read Roger Angell’s excellent but overlooked book, A Pitcher’s Story: Innings with David Cone for evidence.

By why do these folks find their access to more mainstream topics so easy? Because sports is so central that they’re widely seen, and heard, and respected for their views on, say, basketball or baseball; and then it’s assumed that viewers will follow them, and continue to respect them, when they talk about Iran or the Supreme Court. Often, this works. But it reminds me that SportsCenter and its ilk could only have succeeded in a sports-mad culture, and that they, in turn, constantly increase their own market share by convincing the audience of their importance.