Thirteen months following the devastating destruction of Hurricane Katrina, the New Orleans Saints returned home to the Superdome against the Atlanta Falcons. With roughly 13:30 left in the first quarter, number 37 in black and gold crossed from the right side to the left side of his defensive line. The ball was on the Falcons 20 yard line, it was fourth down and Atlanta had their punting unit out.
The ball was snapped and the stadium filled with New Orleans fleur-de-lis stood up and saw one of the rarest plays in football. A blocked punt. Steve Gleason rushed through the middle of the Falcons line and dove superman style into the punt. His hands and arms fully reaching, it re-directed the punter’s kick, and the ball bobbled back nearly 20 yards behind the line of scrimmage, leading to a Saints score.
For nearly a minute after the score, the television broadcasters stayed silent as more than 75,000 fans chanted, screamed and cheered while the world watched the Saints channel a rebuilding city’s emotions within the first few minutes of its first game back home.
Michael Smith, ESPN’s co-host of the SC6 and New Orleans native was on the sidelines taking it all in.
“I’ve never heard a stadium that loud and I’ve never felt an energy in a city like that night,” Smith told DIME.
Born and raised in the Big Easy, Smith started his journey as a journalist in high school, where he spent time as an intern with the Times-Picayune, the local daily paper in New Orleans. At the time, he was a good writer but he didn’t have an itch or driving desire to do it as a future career. But as he moved to college, it became something that sparked more interest. Attending Loyola University, a small, private institution in New Orleans, he got a call for a summer sports internship from the Times-Picayune, something they’d never had before.
“They called me,” Smith says of the internship opportunity. “I said, ‘wait, you’re going to pay me to write about sports? Sure, that’s not a bad way to spend the summer.'”
He took a liking to sports journalism after that summer in his freshman year of college. So he continued to work at the paper and for a semester, he was also the sports editor of the college publication, the Loyola Maroon.
When the end of his sophomore year came, Smith, with some more experience under his belt, opted to apply for as many nationally known papers as he could.
Smith heard back on one — just one — of the more than 30 applications he threw out to potential employers for an opportunity, and that was with the Boston Globe. Landing a summer internship lasting two summers (which turned into a full-time job in 2001), Smith came in at a time when the Patriots won the Super Bowl. It gave him a level of exposure that almost no student out of college would get. Because of the talk around the Boston teams and the interest level around the Northeast, ESPN’s Around the Horn (which started in 2003) asked Smith take hits on the show.
Smith provided a commentary that was worthy of a full-time opportunity with ESPN.
“I was a 24 year old knucklehead still wet behind the ears covering the Patriots and on Around the Horn,” Smith says.
Fast forward 13 years later, and Smith is still with the Worldwide Leader. He’s co-host of ESPN’s latest endeavor, “SC6.” “The Six” was ESPN’s attempt to take its “SportsCenter” format and do things differently, as Smith and fellow co-host (and longtime friend) Jemele Hill, try to reach a younger audience in the most difficult timeslot in news.
Unlike many of his colleagues and peers at big name networks like ESPN and Fox Sports One, Smith isn’t a hot-take artist and hasn’t made his living off of creating false claims or narratives. Why Smith thrives and succeeds is because of his ability to captivate and carry an audience through facts and authenticity – likely a result of his hard news background. Of course, he doesn’t have a show without his co-host, and his working relationship with Hill (and vice-versa) has been instrumental in each other’s successes.
Hill and Smith are good friends off set and frequently map out shows during their time off. That includes a constant text message chain at night and in the morning as the two stay planning even when they’re not “on the clock.”
“It’s the same whether they’re on-air or not,” ESPN NBA Insider Chris Haynes says. “The only difference is that they’re on a set and there are millions of people watching.”
Smith pops into the office often in the morning even though the show doesn’t start until 6 p.m. ET, according to a few people close to him. He and Hill work on the topics that they feel they can still discuss as the news cycle continues on them. Most of the time, though, what they’re going to end up talking about will change throughout the day as stories pop up and take shape on social media.
This is what makes the time slot for SC6 so difficult and intriguing. It’s like icing the kicker at the end of the game. They’ve been anticipating a moment, and right as the ball is snapped, they’ve got to go back and kick with a different topic and play in hand. In other words, they’re constantly having to change the game plan to appease the audience. The 6pm no man’s land makes it impossible to talk about games from the night before which have already been read, heard, and seen. And it’s still too early to discuss the current day’s matchups. This forces Hill and Smith to be different.
“We come in with the intent of having a completely different show by the time 6 o’clock hits,” Smith says. “It’s just the reality. I love ESPN and this platform, but we have lots of mouths to feed and boxes to check. Whereas other people just come in and say ‘oh, let’s talk about last night’s games.’ We come in knowing and hoping that what we’re talking about now, before we go live, is obsolete.”
There isn’t a show if there isn’t mutual respect between Hill and Smith. And you can see it on-air just as much off of it. Neither bulldozes or takes over a conversation. Even outside of work, Smith says you’ll never hear either of them say ‘let me finish’ to a thought or sentence because they just know each other too well. When they interject or interrupt, it’s natural and they allow it to play out. What you see is what you get with them.
“We refuse to be anything but authentic,” Smith says. “We don’t manufacture anything or pick sides. We feel like we can just say it differently, agree with it differently. We just say what we think. Our goal is not to be controversial, our goal is to inform, educate and make it entertaining.”
In a world where everything is on-demand and on a social media page, Hill and Smith both have faced their fair share of criticism for including topics like politics or social issues that may not be for the “stick to sports” crowd. Hill, especially, has taken the brunt of the fervor over her tweets calling Donald Trump a “white supremacist,” leading to statements from ESPN, endless Fox News segments, FCC complaints, and even quotes from the White House itself.
While all this has gone on, Smith has avoided most of the major public attacks (because it’s both of their show, he still get’s criticism even if it’s not as publicly known).
However, when many of the worlds biggest sports topics are around these issues, how can you avoid them and act like they’re not there? Most do, however, Hill and Smith won’t shy away because there’s a simple answer.
“I don’t think there are sides to conversations around social injustices,” Smith says, “there’s right and there’s wrong, period. And anybody that thinks there is another side to police brutality or another side to gender inequality or another side to race relations, you’re full of it. There is no other side. I say what I say about what I say it about because I know that the truth needs to be said for people who can’t speak for themselves. That perspective is necessary.”
Smith knows that in his situation he has more to lose by saying what he’s saying and by taking the stance that he’s taking. He understands there is greater possibility for blowback or fallout of various kinds for taking the stances that he’s taking. But in today’s media landscape, there’s always a line to toe — to stay employed so you can make a difference, but to use your platform to enact positive change when at all possible.
That’s not always the case, as others with the same platform often galvanize another part of the population for personal gain. That base and crowd — which also includes a large anti-ESPN contingent, an anti-social justice segment, anti-politics, anti-person of color, race, or gender — knows there is money to be made there. So they’ve picked their side.
However, through this all, Smith believes he knows which side will end up being right.
“Our side is for those who’ve been historically oppressed, who’ve historically been denied throughout the history of this country,” Smith says. “Because if I was in it for me and I just stuck to sports, that’d be easy. That’s easy to do. If I wanted to put my head in the sand and just forget that there is no division and separation, it’s impossible. Because there is no separation, it’s impossible to stick to sports. That’s such a lazy, coded cry. The only people who can “stick to sports” are those who are privileged enough to stick to sports.”
The backlash to their approach isn’t going away anytime soon, but for Hill and Smith, they feel there’s an obligation to speak up for those who don’t have a public voice.
Hill tends to get even more of a target on her back because she’s both black and a woman — a double minority in the world of sports broadcasting. She claps back at the trolls on twitter and speaks her mind. But her knowledge of sports is unparalleled. She complements Smith perfectly, and their rapport shows through as “SC6” continues to grow stronger over time.
“I think there’s an unfair perception of our show that we’re Social Justice Network Central,” Hill says. “We are trained journalists and we don’t wake up in the morning thinking ‘let’s lead the show with DACA today.’ We follow the news and we follow the story. And if the story is Colin Kaepernick, then we’re going to discuss it. If the story is Red Sox fans dropping a banner at Fenway that says racism is as American as baseball, we’re going to discuss it because it’s in the news. There’s always been a close link between sports and social issues.”
Smith and Hill decided to discuss difficult topics that aren’t simply about stats, wins, or losses. But as athletes’ voices are amplified, and they’re using their public status to speak out, coverage of sports can’t ignore that and act as if everything is the same as it ever was. While there’s always going to be a segment of the fan population that seeks out sports as an “escape,” the reality is there’s no escaping what’s going on in the world around you, whether you’re in the stands or the star on a $200 million contract.
“This is what our job requires and who we are as people. I don’t consider it a burden because that implies that I have to live with it or deal with it,” Hill says. “I consider it a responsibility and an honor to address these issues.”
The pair of Hill and Smith has dominated the headlines because of a few tweets. But, their show is more than that. When it comes to the planning, preparation, and formulation of smart sports talk, Smith and Hill (along with many talented people behind the scenes) produce a top notch show that captivates audiences and finds a fresh look at topics that’ve already been discussed to death on social media.
As long as he’s got an opportunity to have a voice, Smith will use it. And he’s got his partner’s back every step of the way.