Photo courtesy of Sports Business Society of Boston College / Facebook

Stephen A. Smith on Adversity, Success, and Friendship

Stephen A. Smith is the most polarizing figure in the world of sports journalism. He’s a self-proclaimed realist; he speaks his mind and never backs down from an argument. On Monday night, Share Your Sport, BC TV, AHANA Management Academy, and the Sports Business Society co-hosted an appearance from the ESPN First Take commentator who sports fans affectionately — or disdainfully — call “Stephen A.”

Smith was initially scheduled to visit Boston College last April, but canceled last minute to cover the NBA playoffs for ESPN.  Yet Smith wasn’t willing to take responsibility for last year’s no-show. “I was supposed to be here last year. Dammit that wasn’t my fault. They said we need you in San Antonio!” he insisted. After all, BC neither cuts Smith’s checks nor pays his bills, priorities he was not shy from reiterating.

Nevertheless, Stephen A. did not disappoint. With unmatched charisma, and equally impressive eloquence, Smith sauntered across the stage of Robsham Theatre. He shared his life story and his own perspective on adversity, success, and even friendship. Growing up, Smith faced his own share of hardship. Raised in Queens, New York, Smith was held back twice in elementary school, first in the third grade and then again in the fourth, due to his lackluster reading level. Despite laughter from other neighborhood kids, whose names are still ingrained in his head more than forty years later, Smith persevered.

Perhaps due to his early academic struggles, Smith developed a relentless work ethic, with equal passion and drive for success. “No one out works me,” Smith declared. To his credit, it is difficult to dispute that claim. In addition to appearing on First Take with his equally polarizing co-host Skip Bayless, Smith works overtime as an NBA analyst on SportsCenter and as a radio host for Mad Dog Radio on Sirius XM Radio.

Sure, Smith enjoys the luxuries that come with being a high-profile media celebrity. His life is full of first class flights, five-star hotels and restaurants, and vacations — pleasures he was not hesitant to call to mind. While he was not bashful about boasting his wealth, Smith implored the audience not to forget the process necessary to reach his position of success. As Smith put it: everything costs.

Rather than spewing worn-out words of advice to study hard and maintain good grades, Smith emphasized the importance of networking. “Surround yourself with people who have knowledge, gifts, to make you more confident and valuable to modern day society,” Smith said. As he expounded on the expectations of corporate America, Smith underscored the significance of presenting a professional demeanor. Smith himself learned this lesson when he was taken off the air for a week in August 2014, after controversial remarks regarding former Baltimore Raven Ray Rice and domestic violence.

Smith also stressed the importance of adopting a competitive mentality. “You are competing every single day,” he said. “I’ve always understood that. And it makes me who I am.” Smith applied his competitive spirit to his view on interpersonal relationships. When it comes to friendship, Stephen A. doesn’t mince words. “You ain’t got no friends. Y’all are acquaintances who happen to get along with each other.” Smith’s words ring bells of a narrow interpretation of Aristotle’s understanding of friendship. Forget friends of the good. Stephen A. made it clear — everyone is a competitor.

Smith offered a Machiavellian approach to achieving success, stressing the importance of hard work and self-reliance in a competitive world of cutthroat competition. Smith harped on the need for competition and individual drive. “I believe I am the best,” Smith said. “Now that’s the attitude you all need to have.”

When it came to time for the Q&A section of the talk, Smith continued to take questions from the crowd well after the allotted time-period of 20 minutes. Despite many comical questions, Smith was also asked whom he considers his greatest mentor. Smith gave the nod to his late brother, who passed away in a car crash in 1992, for teaching him the value of hard work, determination, and self-confidence. While he would never admit it, perhaps Smith was willing to field more questions from the audience as compensation for last year’s disappointing no-show. In any case, Smith followed through with his promise to facilitate a discussion, rather than a lecture.

Make no doubt about it — you can hate Stephen A. Smith. You can either respect or ignore him. Either way, he probably doesn’t give a damn.

“Like I told you, you only think you have friends, but you really don’t,” Smith said with a smirk.

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Ryan Fennell