In his new book Straight Shooter: A reminder of second chances and first takes, Stephen A. Smith describes himself as “America’s Number One Sports Media Personality”. He may be spot on if we put the emphasis on personality. It’s hard to imagine a better-known sports journalist these days.

And widely known is what Smith wants readers to realize it is him. His memoir is mostly an account of how he became a success story and a millionaire. He speaks with deep emotion about his two daughters as his greatest blessings, but we don’t see him interacting with them nearly as much as we see him climbing the corporate ladder.

Smith appears on the ESPN talk show weekday mornings First take. He comments on everything from boxing to basketball for the network and has a recurring role on the soap opera General Hospital. But Smith’s popularity isn’t just a result of the long hours he spends in front of television cameras. It’s a reflection of the way he’s combined sports analysis and self-promotion to successfully deliver on television the kind of water-cooler arguments about sports that are being made across America.

The format for First take is that of a debate show where the winners are those who hold their opinions the strongest. As Smith notes, fans of the show don’t want to hear about it mea culpas or retrace, he does his best to avoid both, but to his credit he is willing to admit when his comments cross the line. In 2016, Smith sparked major controversy when he slammed Ayesha Curry, wife of basketball superstar Steph Curry, for publicly complaining about an umpire’s decision that went against her husband. At the time, Smith thought his critics were wrong, but wrong straight shooterhe admits to being guilty of “mansplaining” and condescension.

In the past, great sportswriters were known to be good writers. Grantland Rice, the legendary New York Herald Tribune Sports journalist, is still known for his designation of the backcourt of the 1924 Notre Dame football team. “The Four Horsemen rode against a blue gray October sky again today,” Rice wrote. “In dramatic lore they were known as famine, pestilence, destruction and death. Those are just aliases. Their real names are Stuhldreher, Miller, Crowley, and Layden. They formed the crest of the South Bend cyclone that swept another struggling Army team across the abyss of Polo Grounds this afternoon.

Rice’s influence extended well beyond his generation. Beginning in the years after World War II, columnists like Jimmy cannonwho wrote for them New York Post and New York Herald Tribuneand Red Smitha Pulitzer Prize winner who wrote for the New York Herald Tribune and The New York Times, following the trail Rice left for sports columnists. Where they differed from Rice was the emphasis they placed on social commentary.

By 1972, Roger Kahn had become the gold standard in sports journalism the boys of summer his tribute to Jackie Robinson and the Brooklyn Dodgers at a time when baseball was struggling to shed its racist past. The boys of summer remains a sports classic, but is not alone.

In recent decades, a number of books have analyzed the connection between sport and social issues, examining a variety of issues: rural poverty and high school football in HG Bissinger’s 1990 friday night lights, Racism and Boxing in David Remnick’s 1998 King of the World: Muhammad Ali and the Rise of an American Heroand the Great Depression, and row into it Daniel James Brown’s 2014 story about the 1936 Olympics, The boys in the boat.

Such serious sports journalism no longer surprises anyone; nor does the fact that newspapers and books are no longer the primary source that sports fans turn to for information about their favorite athletes and teams. Television dominates today’s sports world, especially with CNN’s 24/7 coverage. What fans want from those who bring them their sports news is not just coverage, but opinions and personal stories about the athletes they see.

It is this world that paved the way for Stephen A. Smith’s popularity. He is a beneficiary of the push Keith Olbermann (no admirer of Smith) and Dan Patrick launched at CNN in the early 1990s with their “sport Center” program and later by Michael Wilbon and Tony Kornheiser with Forgive the interruption.

“Smith doesn’t address how many sports need to be questioned for the way they exploit them on the field.”

“I never wanted to get into sports journalism just to write sports,” Smith insists straight shooter. His early life shows why. The son of Caribbean immigrants, Smith was a poor kid from Hollis, Queens who suffered from undiagnosed dyslexia. He could easily have gotten lost in New York City’s vast public school system. His mother came to his rescue, building his confidence and helping him navigate both an indifferent educational system and a neglectful father.

Smith initially went to the Fashion Institute of New York because it was the only school that offered him financial aid. But he didn’t really get started with his education until Winston-Salem State University in North Carolina, a historically black college, offered him a basketball scholarship. With encouragement from his coach, Clarence Edward “Big House” Gaines, Smith was able to graduate from Winston-Salem and begin his career as a journalist.

Smith’s memoirs make it clear that he will never forget his early struggles. His life story explains why so many of the black athletes, past and present, he admires are as distinguished by their commitment to racial justice as their athletic ability.

The success Smith has achieved in sports journalism by evolving from the author to the New York Daily News and The Philadelphia investigator It is not an achievement that he expects to last without constant cultivation on his part. “You have to have a team. You can’t do it alone,” he emphasizes in his book. He even lists the various agents who have helped him and the ESPN executives he has relied on.

Smith was persistent on “First Take” pointing out how black athletes are turned down for head coaching positions because they have no prior coaching experience, while white athletes often get head coaching jobs with little or no prior coaching experience. But surprisingly inside straight shooter Smith doesn’t grapple – certainly not to the depth he’s capable – of how many sports must be held accountable for exploiting on the field or behind the scenes.

Football is currently struggling with the degenerative neurological condition Chronic Traumatic Encephalopathy (CTE), which occurs as a result of the high number of diagnosed and undiagnosed concussions among players. Efforts are underway at the collegiate and professional levels to make the game safer. But what football coaches and most sportswriters are reluctant to admit is that the game in its current form can be inherently unsafe – no matter what precautions are taken.

Earlier this year, a nationally televised professional soccer game between the Buffalo Bills and the Cincinnati Bengals was postponed after Buffalo player Damar Hamlin suffered an on-field cardiac arrest. But if there’s one motto that currently governs major sport, that motto is that the show must go on.

Tua Tagovailoa, the gifted young quarterback for the Miami Dolphins, has suffered three concussions this soccer season, and anyone watching soccer World Cup 2022 games on American television could do so without being faced with disturbing stories of exploitation having to deal with exploitation workforce imported by Qatar to build its sports stadiums and not bear the pressure put on the players One Love Armbands protesting Qatar’s anti-LBGTQ policies.

The history of Tagovailoa and World Cup history is too recent to be included straight shooter. But there was enough space inside straight shooter for Smith to fully discuss the risks of football, or if the United States should refuse, if at all, to participate in athletic competitions in countries with blatant records of human rights abuses. Perhaps these are issues he will address in a future Stephen A. Smith book as he steps outside of his current comfort zone.

Nicolaus Mills is Professor of American Literature at Sarah Lawrence College and author of Every Army Man Is With You: The cadets who won the 1964 Army-Navy game, fought in Vietnam, and came home changed forever. Stephen A. Smith’s true gift is to focus on himself