In the aftermath of this week's layoffs at ESPN that claimed upwards of 100 employees, former Sports Illustrated reporter and best-selling author Jeff Pearlman wondered why the network had cut some of the most-reputable names in journalism while retaining First Take co-host Stephen A. Smith.
Pearlman, in an essay shared on Twitter on Thursday, said Smith and his multimillion-dollar salary were safe because "he's really good at yelling."
"This is not Stephen A. Smith's fault," Pearlman wrote. "He realized long ago that reporting on Eric Snow's sprained ankle wasn't cutting it. … So he adapted to the times, surrendered his integrity card and went full-blown Ringling Bros."
Smith wasn't the only pundit Pearlman targeted. He also pointed out that the model has worked well for Smith's former co-host, Skip Bayless, who is paid millions to host Undisputed on Fox Sports 1 (and who Smith calls "a brother from another mother"). As Pearlman points out, Bayless began his ascent (or descent, depending on your opinion) by pushing the unsubstantiated claim that former Cowboys quarterback and Fox Sports color analyst Troy Aikman might have been homosexual.
"To say I'm disappointed in the hiring of Skip Bayless would be an enormous understatement," Aikman said in a statement last year after Bayless was hired, noting his opinion of journalistic success differed from Fox Sports president of national networks Jamie Horowitz's.
"I believe success is achieved by acquiring and developing talented, respected and credible individuals, none of which applies to Skip Bayless," Aikman said.
Not surprisingly, Smith focused on Pearlman's criticism of him, and blasted the author on his ESPN Radio show Thursday afternoon.
"I'm going to ask Mr. Jeff Pearlman, and all the Jeff Pearlmans of the world, a simple question: Why are you focusing on me?" Smith asked. "There are people in our business who actually get paid more, who do less and produce less. Why are you not talking about them?"
Smith called Pearlman a "lowlife" and suggested there is a racial component to the author's criticism, informing his listeners of the "hypocrisy" he saw in the comments he often hears coming from other sports reporters and pundits.
Smith then listed his entire resume, including what the "A" in his name stands for (for the record, Anthony). Smith's point was to address the argument made by Pearlman and many other critics that the outspoken host didn't deserve the large platform ESPN gives him, especially in the wake of cutting well-respected journalists such as Ed Werder and Jayson Stark.
"I climbed up this business. I'm an outspoken loud-ass mouth black man, who the hell do you think gave me an opportunity?" Smith exclaimed. "I'm sorry, sir, this was earned."
Listen to the full 12-minute segment here:
In focusing on himself, Smith seemed to miss the larger point of Pearlman's argument, that the shift by ESPN, Fox Sports and even news networks such as CNN to encourage screaming hot takes and loud, controversial opinions is "an assault on the profession."
Later in the day, Pearlman posted another message on Twitter in response to Smith's comments, noting he didn't feel "served" or "owned" by the outspoken host's comments.
"I went after him. He has a right to come back to me. He didn't agree with my take; I didn't agree with his take," Pearlman said, noting that he almost never listens to sports talk radio.
"I'm happy to have this career. It's pretty sweet," an unbothered Pearlman said. "All's good in the world."