Today, said ESPN sports journalist and social commentator Stephen A. Smith, “The excuses are drastically minimized.” Smith tackled the topic of racism as a rationale for lack of ambition during a Feb. 17 speech on Murfreesboro’s MTSU campus.
Smith said that prejudice and racism clearly still exist in 2016, but asserted that it is nothing like what previous generations of black Americans had to go through.
His visit was part of the university’s Black History Month observations; the group at his presentation in the Student Union Ballroom was primarily comprised of black MTSU students, but all students were welcome, and the crowd included a diversity of ages, backgrounds and races.
The speaker opined that rarely should anyone today use racism as an excuse for failure, that the key to success is drive, focus, hard work and sacrifice, that all Americans go through challenges and struggles, and that black America’s cries of racism are increasingly, and often rightfully, being discounted.
“You can’t blame the white folks for everything!” Smith said. “I’m standing here as a black man telling you this, and that’s what the world is thinking.”
Yes, horrible cases of racism appear regularly in the news and around the country, but Smith said he is tired of hearing people of color blame their own laziness and lack of discipline on racism.
“If you can’t prove [that racism is holding you back], shut up,” Smith said.
People should identify their goals and gifts, he continued, and, rather than sit around with a sense of entitlement making excuses, go out and achieve their dreams.
“What’s your mission?” Smith asked the crowd. “You are here [at an institution of higher learning] to find out how you will change the world.”
Smith was born in Queens, N.Y., and attended Winston Salem State University in North Carolina on a basketball scholarship. His path to become the well-known television, radio and print personality he is today was not always easy, as he explained—the death of an older brother devastated him, he broke his knee while playing college ball and he eventually had to re-earn his basketball scholarship, not to mention relearn how to walk. He got held back a grade in elementary school due to poor reading skills, and even after entering his career in media, contract negotiations were at times difficult to navigate, he said.
But hard work and determination were the keys, he said. He earned his position in the industry “legally, legitimately, not behind anybody’s back, front and center, here I come” through his drive to be the best in sports journalism.
He encouraged college students to pursue internships and real-world experience even beyond their required classroom work.
Smith said he had compiled over 200 published clips before he graduated college, by seeking out opportunities and submitting work to local publications in the Winston Salem area, on campus, and even the Atlanta Journal Constitution.
The sports commentator, who appears on ESPN2’s First Take program every weekday alongside Skip Bayless, is quick to share the credit for his success as a journalist and media personality with those surrounding him. Many, many family members, teachers, media coworkers and others in the industry, he said, have contributed to his success.
Those [whom you believe are] holding you down “must be removed,” he said. “They are an abyss, an anchor . . . it is extremely important to surround yourself with people who care.”
Smith said the difficulties in life are what make people special and make them realize their full potential.
“If it were easy, what would make you special for achieving it?” he told the crowd.
He wants people to be aware that racism is not the hurdle standing in their way—if an individual can prove their value to a company, that company will hire them.
“Corporate America is merciless, corporate America doesn’t care about your feelings,” Smith said. “It’s all about the money.”
Sometimes, in order to succeed, one must be willing to compromise, and to play by the corporate rules.
“I am proud to be here talking with you, but if ESPN said I couldn’t be here, I wouldn’t be here,” he said. “You don’t get to do what you want to do, when you want to do it, how you want to do it, with who you want to do it with, and have your hand out asking for their money.
“If ESPN says, ‘Don’t endorse a candidate’ . . . yes, sir! It’s easy,” he continued.
And while ESPN (and its parent company, Disney), place plenty of restrictions on what Smith can and can not say, he ultimately has a great deal of leeway in his opinions, and his views on society resonate with many Americans.
“If you’re up there saying, ‘Make America great again,’ I want to know when you think America was great,” Smith said, referencing a current presidential candidate’s catchphrase, as the predominantly African American audience broke out in applause.
Smith will speak his mind on the Democratic candidates, too, saying Bernie’s ideas of free education and healthcare for all sound great, “but how are we going to pay for that?”
The thirst for knowledge and the pursuit of ideas has been a huge part of Smith’s life, he said. A dictionary has been his friend since the time he was held back in elementary school, and he determined that he would read and write, not at an adequate level, but at an excellent level. Now in his 40s, he still tries to improve his language and vocabulary skills every day, and says he often looks up words in the dictionary, and refuses to continue reading a book or article until he is certain he comprehends every word and passage. He says he’ll hear out anyone’s opinions.
“You can tell me anything, as long as you respect me,” he said.
And his claim that he has never lost a debate doesn’t mean he is always right. Smith said when he is in a debate or a conversation with someone, he’ll often realize and recognize the other individual is correct, but then he walks away from the exchange with more knowledge than he had going in, so that makes him a winner.
He left the students and community members with the encouragement to “find your gift,” that the idea of “you can be anything” is a lie, but that everyone has something they are excellent at, and if they identify and nurture that, and surround themselves with people who believe in them, they can change the world and find success beyond their wildest dreams.
“I couldn’t play basketball against Allen Iverson and Kobe. But they can’t write like me and they can’t host a radio show like me,” Smith said.