NEW YORK – ESPN star Stephen A. Smith apologized on Monday for what he called “the most egregious error of my career,” a Friday commentary about domestic abuse that referred to possible “provocation” by victims.
ESPN signaled that it would not take any disciplinary actions against Smith, one of the sports network’s most controversial commentators.
“Stephen’s comments last Friday do not reflect our company’s point of view,” the network said in a statement. “As his apology demonstrates, he recognizes his mistakes and has a deeper appreciation of our company values.”
Smith’s original comments were televised on “First Take,” the mid-morning ESPN2 talk show where he appears daily alongside Skip Bayless and Cari Champion. Smith and Bayless were discussing the assault charge against Baltimore Ravens running back Ray Rice, who was indicted in March for striking his then-girlfriend and dragging her out of an elevator. On Thursday, the National Football League suspended Rice for two games, a punishment that was widely criticized for its leniency.
On Friday’s “First Take,” Bayless noted that Rice’s girlfriend, who is now his wife, “did initiate some sort of physical contact,” but said “I don’t care.” Rice, he said, “cannot hit back, cannot strike back.”
Smith responded, “You say you don’t care whether she hit or not. Let me make everybody uncomfortable by telling you, I do care. But let me tell you why. It’s not about him, then, it’s about you. And here’s what I mean by that. We keep talking about the guys. We know you have no business putting your hands on a woman — I don’t know how many times I gotta reiterate that.”
After a tangential comment, Smith shifted his focus from men to women. He said he has tried to tell women in his family, “Let’s make sure we don’t do anything to provoke wrong actions.”
He referred to “elements of provocation” and implied that women should “do what we can to try to prevent the situation from happening.”
He concluded his remarks by saying, “I don’t think that’s broached enough, is all I’m saying. No point of blame.”
Smith’s comments spurred outrage, from inside ESPN as well as outside. After watching what Smith said, ESPN2 “SportsNation” co-host Michelle Beadle wrote on Twitter, “I’m now aware that I can provoke my own beating.”
On Friday night, Keith Olbermann commented on his nightly ESPN2 program, “It is unacceptable to suggest that a victim somehow has provoked the violence enacted upon them. Violence is entirely the fault of, and is entirely in the soul of, the perpetrator.”
By then, Smith had tried to apologize on Twitter. He read a more polished apology at the start of Monday’s “First Take.”
“My words came across that it is somehow a woman’s fault. This was not my intent. It is not what I was trying to say,” Smith said. “Yet the failure to clearly articulate something different lies squarely on my shoulders.”
He said he was “truly, truly sorry, particularly to victims of domestic abuse and to my female family members and loved ones I’ve disappointed and who know I know better.”
Champion, the only woman on the show, then weighed in. “Here’s the issue with domestic dispute, sexual assault, crimes that are intimate: you use certain trigger words. Words like ‘provoke.’ All we hear is ‘provoke.’ I haven’t been a victim of domestic violence, but I have seen it firsthand,” Champion said. “And you can’t hear anything else after that. You just hear someone explaining it away or perceived to explain it away.”
She said that was “obviously” not Smith’s intent. The show quickly transitioned to the sports news of the day, and didn’t resume the Ray Rice discussion from Friday.