Stephen A. Smith pulls no punches. Brought to Kansas State as a guest lecturer by Alpha Phi Alpha Fraternity Inc., he cautioned students not to expect the eternally-optimistic, rah-rah fare of many presentations given at universities.
“You’ve got to be ready to handle your business,” Smith said, “or you’re going to get eaten alive.”
In his trademark articulate, no-holds-barred style, the popular and polarizing ESPN analyst gave students advice about how to be successful as he recounted numerous situations he has encountered throughout his career. While he made the audience laugh numerous times, his frankness also created a sobering atmosphere on occasion.
“Don’t walk around thinking that the world owes you,” Smith said. “Fair is a place where they judge pigs.”
He stressed the importance of knowing the facts, the wisdom to recognize employers’ decisions as business versus personal, the necessity of respecting the authority of one’s employer, the impact of behavior and perception, the need to think ahead in life, and much more. In the hour and a half Smith lectured and subsequently took questions, he upheld his forthright reputation and told some thought-provoking stories. He also answered students’ inquiries in an introspective way that shed light on his beliefs and experiences.
- Early on, Smith intoned that he always knows more than what he is telling about any given news story. As an example of how essential it is to know all the facts, the journalist referenced a time earlier in his career when his boss called him into the office on a Sunday morning. Smith had reported that a college coach and player had gotten into a fight and commented that the coach had better straighten the situation out or he would get himself fired. That coach had called Smith’s boss demanding that Smith be fired. Smith called the coach, put him on speakerphone so his boss could hear, and listened to the coach ream him out for a minute or two before dropping a game-changing line. “Would you rather I had reported that the reason you and the player had a fight was because you were cheating on your wife with his girlfriend, that she is pregnant, and that you two are having an abortion next week?” Needless to say, the coach changed his tune, and Smith demonstrated that he had indeed done the necessary research to know exactly what he was talking about.
- When asked about his biggest professional mistake, Smith discussed his 2010 article about the demise of an NBA player he had covered for years and with whom he had grown close – Allen Iverson. Confronted with multiple sources that Iverson had been out clubbing on his time away from his team instead of staying with his ill daughter at the hospital like he said, Smith was assigned to write a story on Iverson’s downward spiral into alcoholism, gambling and divorce. He attempted to contact Iverson in a variety of ways before going ahead with the story, but the two did not speak for the next two years. While Smith is confident he did the right thing as a journalist, he felt guilty about writing the story instead of passing the assignment to someone else. “You can be too ambitious to the point that you forget what lines not to cross,” Smith said. “To be a journalist, you have to be a human being first.”
- Smith brought up race in the context of the recent tragic case of Trayvon Martin, the teenager shot and killed by a neighborhood watch person. While Smith said the shooter should have been arrested because a child is dead, he also cautioned that people refrain from judgment until they know all the facts. “You can get to a point where you’re so emotional you’re blinded to the facts,” Smith said, “and the facts are all you need.” Concerning racism, Smith had points for both white and black listeners. To white America: Racism still exists, and black sensitivity is warranted in some situations because of this country’s history. To black America: It’s not as bad as it once was, so you can’t walk around acting like there has been no improvement.
- Along those lines, Smith talked about the importance of how people present themselves. He used himself as an example; while he does not wear a suit at home, or at the grocery store, when it is time for work, he is going to look professional. In a brutally honest indictment of a rather popular trend, Smith expressed frustration with men who wear their pants sagging below their behinds. “Where does it get you?” he implored. “You are giving folks a license to stereotype you before you even open your mouth.”
- With respect to leadership, Smith reminded students that it is not all about leading. Part of leadership is being competitive enough to defend your position as a leader. Part of leadership is knowing who to follow. Part of leadership is having an open mind and accepting the ideas of others that will make you better. Part of leadership is knowing when to fight and when to retreat. Smith applied the concept of leadership in a number of ways that made students think about it differently.
- Perhaps the most different question Smith answered during the evening was one posed by a U.S. infantryman. He asked the ESPN analyst if he felt like athletes deserved the millions they earned while people like himself fought for their country every day for $25,000 or $30,000 per year. Smith asked if the young man really wanted an answer to that, and he received an affirmative response. While he noted that the military, law enforcement, teachers and other such professions are incredibly valued and under-appreciated, he argued that the huge pay gap is the rational outcome of a capitalistic society. “The real world is about a revenue that is generated,” he said. “The people in this country who do the things that you do … you can’t navigate around the fact that it’s not revenue-generating.” Smith, a registered Independent, said he is socially moderate but fiscally conservative – a private sector guy.
After giving a speech that began with a standing ovation and also concluded with one, Smith took time to take pictures with dozens of students. The analyst’s openness about the business world, his sometimes harsh but heartfelt directives on how to succeed, his stories about his career and his reflections on all matter of subjects made his presentation one that students will not soon forget.