Stephen A. Smith has a particular way of doing things, and the way he says MJ is no different. He emphasizes the J, not the M, so it’s M-J instead of the usual MJ that we civilian idiots favor when talking about the best player and worst dresser who ever lived. That enunciative choice is one of those things that is easy not to notice in normal circumstances. Now that sports are cancelled and the first hour of First Take on ESPN is nothing but promotion for the network’s bloated Last Dance documentary, though, that non-standard M-J utterance stands out a bit more.
There’s a perverse satisfaction in watching First Take these days. The experience is like watching the standard sports fantasy scenario—yesteryear’s best teams against todays, answering all those unanswerable questions—playing out in uncanny reverse. We instead get to watch the great sports opiners of today debate the great teams of yesteryear. Have you ever wondered what your life would’ve been like if Max and Stephen A. were around to scream at you about the ‘95-96 Chicago Bulls? Well, I’ve got some great news, because there’s going to be 10 hours of it this week, from 10 until noon. This is only great news for those looking to add yet another degree of monotony to their already abysmally repetitive existence in social isolation. It’s not great TV, exactly, but it’s what we’ve got.
Like the only-somewhat-more-real financial markets, the take economy has imploded since sports went into pandemic hibernation; in the marketplace of spicy takes as in the stock market, the idea of there being anything real or concrete undergirding it all now looks wildly, hilariously suspect. When the stock market bounces back despite millions filing for unemployment each week and tens of thousands already dead, it’s fair to wonder whether the whole fucking thing is made up in the first place—or, if not made up, what it actually considers valuable. Similarly, watching Stephen A. Smith and Max Kellerman debate sports history exposes the bankruptcy of the modern “Embrace Debate” direction of sports programming. Eventually this will all be settled, and the discussion around it will look even sillier than it already does. Until then, the shouting must go on.
This has been obvious for a while, but the first week without sports helped drive it home. The debate boys spent 30 minutes of their two-hour show discussing whether or not Tom Brady should’ve signed with the Tennessee Titans, which appeared to be a scenario they invented solely to have something to talk about. Max Kellerman questioned whether the government was telling the truth about COVID-19 testing availability by way of saying that he didn’t believe the NBA season would resume. Each segment has had the same strange energy of a conference call, with pregnant pauses littered throughout resulting from a combination of connectivity issues and the agonizing internal search for anything meaningful to say out loud. Perhaps worst of all, while the fellas yell about whether or not the NBA season should be cancelled or merely postponed, you remember why they’re having this debate in the first place and if you’re lucky, the terror will be smoothed over by the relief of having not wasted your life paying attention to the spectacle.
If your sole job is to promote the sports that support your network’s revenue, there is no more meaning for you. A world without sports is a world that no longer requires the hot takes once designed to provoke or taunt or entice viewers to watch; the people that watched soley so they could tweet “you were wrong” at the debate guys now have nothing else to watch. This has driven some of sports media’s D-list freaks to go where the action is. That is, towards armchair epidemiology. The resulting sort has exposed the difference between the ones that are doing this for fun and/or a paycheck and the truly demented hucksters.
I’ve always been struck by a profile of the Monday Night Football crew that appeared in The New Yorker in 2011. In particular, there’s a passage that describes Ron Jaworski practicing his lines from the open about Tyler Palko. Viewers need to believe that they’re watching something interesting, which meant it was Jaworski’s job to convince them that watching Tyler Palko is actually just that, despite all evidence to the contrary (Hail to Pitt!). Jaworski gets down on himself, unconvinced by his own line reading; the story describes him repeating “I’m excited about Tyler Palko” until he gets it right.
The moment sheds some light on what seems like a dark existence: pretending to care about dull and unworthy things, just to keep others engaged. Whether that’s being done on behalf of a network or your own psychotic need for attention, it seems downright Sisyphean to wake up each day and craft new takes that you may not even personally believe, all of it in service of generating a few viral clips that disappear into the ether by day’s end. And then you get up and do it all again tomorrow. It’s particularly bleak when you consider how many people actually care about this shit. Do you know anyone that wants to actively argue with you about sports, like to the point of raising their voice or making things uncomfortable? Do you actively avoid that person, or idly imagine what it might be like to throw yourself into front of traffic whenever they start speaking with you?
It’s fun to watch sports. It can be fun to talk about sports. It is never fun to actively debate sports, because who the fuck cares? The only people that actually enjoy debates are the type of weird freaks you’d avoid in public at all costs—people who describe themselves as “wonks” or people that buy merch from Ben Shapiro’s dopey website. Debate of this kind is for people who believe that the point of life is to find the right answer, and assume there’s an actual answer to be found, and won’t rest until you finally agree that theirs is the likelier one. Few things make a quest for answers look more futile than the blank and ruthless pressure of plague, and it’s hard to imagine anything less suited for the moment than the men who make their livings in the answer business—tens of thousands dead, two middle-aged men in suits debating whether M-J was what we all already know he was.
Excitable Misunderstood Genius says:
April 24, 2020 — 1:27 pm
My grandfather has been holding for over 20 years that Nolan Ryan doesn’t belong in the Hall of Fame. It’s the dumbest fucking thing you’ll ever hear. Ryan has got just about every damn record a modern-era starting pitcher can have! He for a long time held the record for the highest percentage of HOF votes anyone has ever received! But Grandpa isn’t impressed by his winning percentage, so he doesn’t belong in the Hall. Every single family vacation, one night of the trip will inevitably devolve into the entire family screaming at him to shut the fuck up about Nolan Ryan. My father never once raised his voice at me while he was raising me, but even he gets caught up in the screaming match. It’s probably the only thing I’ve ever seen make him this angry.
My point is, ESPN needs to hire this man ASAP. They can absolutely wring WEEKS of programming out of this man babbling about how “some stumblebum who only won 52% of his games don’t belong in no Hall of Fame.” Stephen A can only dream of coming up with such a stupid and infuriating take.
April 24, 2020 — 1:49 pm
Trololo Jones says:
What was it like growing up as Robin Ventura’s grandson?
April 24, 2020 — 3:19 pm
Devils Advocate says:
Nolan Ryan lost 292 MLB baseball games. He Stank.
April 24, 2020 — 4:03 pm
I pulled up Ryan’s stats to try to find some fodder to concur with grampa and mix things up in the comments. I had no idea that in the 20 seasons from 1972-1991 he was never less than 6th in his league in strikeouts, even though he was only in the top 10 in innings pitched nine times in that span. Man was a beast for like forever.
Does gramps know he won an ERA title at the age of 40 and he went 8-16 that year?
April 25, 2020 — 7:34 pm
Yeah we talk about that season all the time. Grandpa harps on the 8-16 record. Nothing else matters to him. If you try to mention that the Astros were shitty that year, he just counters that Steve Carlton once had a good record while the Phillies were shit. Grandpa is the ultimate Pitcher Wins guy and you can’t get anything else into his head.
April 27, 2020 — 7:53 am
Goddamn this was nice to read. I didn’t know I needed this, but I did. I don’t understand how anyone would willfully watch First Take. Just give me the Sports Center of the 90s and not people screaming at each other, trying to gin up a “hot take”.
April 24, 2020 — 2:29 pm
Back when Horowitz moved to FS1 and they were scrapping everything in favor of debate shows, I heard a lot of arguments to the effect of “hey, it’s just like some friends at their local bar arguing over who the greatest of all time is over a couple of pints, everyone can relate to that.” If I spent ALL my time at a bar with friends arguing in circles over anything remotely sports-related – even to the point of making up arguments just to have something to talk about – I would probably eventually find a new bar, and new friends.
April 24, 2020 — 2:33 pm
First Take is ESPN’s vision of a blog.
April 24, 2020 — 4:26 pm
Math As A Humanities says:
Cam Newton dresses worse than MJs limited imagination could conjure in his most sleep deprived, tequila tossing, golf chipping nightmare.
And I still love the guy for it.
April 24, 2020 — 5:47 pm
MJ is poorly dressed in the way that any sloppy man is. He doesn’t really care what he wears, so he just throws on whatever. Cam Newton and Russell Westbrook have made dressing poorly into an art form. It takes true inspiration to buy all the stupid shit in their wardrobes, assemble it into a damn clown costume every morning, and then look at your disgraceful reflection in the mirror and decide to go be on fucking television.
April 24, 2020 — 6:44 pm
Fart Barfunkel says:
Chris Thompson is a miracle worker.
If you gave me a library of art history books, the complete run of Bob Ross’s Joy of Painting and 100 days to try, I could not produce a recognizable likeness of Steven A. Smith in MS Paint.
April 24, 2020 — 6:46 pm
fartboi 2preme says:
unrelated but that is some fine usage of mspaint
April 24, 2020 — 9:30 pm
Hannibal Armies says:
Well, the Packers threw the hot take industry a lifeline last night!
April 24, 2020 — 10:15 pm