Emerson’s Al Jaffe Speaker Series hosts sports TV and radio personality, Stephen A. Smith. (Photo by Molly Loughman)
By Molly Loughman
Sports TV personality, radio host, journalist, Stephen A. Smith, spoke candidly to Emerson students on March 27 during the 4th Annual Al Jaffe Speaker Series — a yearly Sports Communication event offering insight into the fields of sports and entertainment from some of the top names in the industry.
It takes alligator skin to make it in sports broadcast, explained Smith, when asked how he deals with the public criticism he receives for his opinions since becoming a commentator on ESPN First Take and frequent NBA analyst on SportsCenter among other NBA broadcasts on ESPN.
“If you are in pursuit of the truth, you can’t worry about friendships, you can’t worry about people’s feelings — you don’t want to be inhumane, or somebody devoid of a spirit and a soul — but as long as you’re in pursuit of truth, usually you’re not going to make friends. I knew that from jump street because that’s the foundation of what the field of journalism is supposed to be about,” said Smith, admitting he’s not flawless and he’s made mistakes. “I’m not choreographed, I’m not faking it. I mean what I say, I say what I mean.”
A captivating communicator, Smith attracted a sizable audience inside the Paramount Theater, where students, staff, faculty, and guests gathered for the latest event in the series — brought to Emerson by ESPN’s retired VP of Talent and Emerson alumnus, Al Jaffe ‘68, now Co-Vice Chair of the Emerson College Board of Trustees.
Throughout the sit-down interview before a cheering crowd, Smith dispensed industry insight, and also reminisced with Jaffe about the day he and his ESPN colleagues hired Smith.
Straight Shooter Smith
Born in the Bronx and raised in Queens, Smith reflected on his grade school days struggling with reading comprehension before he knew he was dyslexic.
“When I think about the career that I have now, believe it or not I go back that far… because even though it was in the fourth grade and over 40 years ago, I remember getting laughed at — the entire block laughing at me,” said Smith, who was better on the basketball court growing up than he was at reading, which he struggled to figure out why. Smith praised his late mother for her devotion back then in trying to identify his diagnosis. To stop getting laughed at, Smith buried himself in books. “I was on my grind from that day and I always, always have been about the work.”
Smith received a basketball scholarship to attend Winston-Salem State University and began his print media career with the Winston-Salem Journal, the Greensboro News and Record, and The New York Daily News. In 1994, he started with the Philadelphia Inquirer as their NBA columnist. Eventually, as a general sports columnist — making him one of only 20 African-Americans nationwide that had held that position at the time, Smith noted.
When asked who at ESPN influenced his career, Smith said in terms of mastering the art of generating TV ratings and revenue, he credits Norby Williamson, current ESPN Executive Vice President of Studio and Event Production, along with Dave Roberts, ESPN Vice President of Network Content. In radio, Smith credits Mike McVay, Executive Vice President/Content & Programming for Cumulus Media and Westwood One.
Al Jaffe Speaker Series
Put on through the School of Communication’s Communication Studies Department, the Al Jaffe Speaker Series opened with the Director of Emerson’s Sports Communication program, Dr. Charles Steinberg, President of the Pawtucket Red Sox and a longtime Boston Red Sox executive. Steinberg rallied the crowd, acknowledging Boston as a city of champions, namely the Red Sox and Patriots, and also Emerson’s recent basketball champions, before introducing Emerson College President Lee Pelton.
“Since 2016, the Al Jaffe Speaker Series has been an important feature of the Sports Communication program at Emerson, bringing in respected sports media to Emerson College. Al was instrumental in helping to establish the Sports Communication program at Emerson five years ago,” said Emerson College President Lee Pelton.
Previous guests of the speaker series include former ESPN president John Skipper, ESPN/Boston Globe analyst Jackie MacMullan and Sports Agents Sandy Montag and Steve Herz.
“My dreams are seriously all about what I did at ESPN and also to come back to Emerson and to give back to a college that gave so much to me,” said Jaffe.