Stephen A. Smith’s Xenophobic Comments About Shohei Ohtani Are Totally Unacceptable

Smith claimed the two-way MLB star can't be the face of the game because he "needs an interpreter"

Stephen A. Smith commentating during Game Three of the NBA Finals between the Milwaukee Bucks and the Phoenix Suns. Smith recently had a xenophobic take on MLB star Shohei Ohtani.
ESPN analyst Stephen A. Smith during Game Three of the NBA Finals between the Milwaukee Bucks and the Phoenix Suns on July 11, 2021 in Milwaukee, Wisconsin.
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Shohei Ohtani has been one of the biggest stories in baseball this season, with the two-way star leading the league in home runs and earning himself plenty of comparisons to Babe Ruth. With half a season to go, he already has 33 homers, and he’s likely to put on a show at tonight’s Home Run Derby. But all that excitement is apparently not enough for ESPN’s Stephen A. Smith, who said Monday that Ohtani can’t be the face of the game due to the fact that he’s not fluent in English.

“When you talk about an audience gravitating to the tube or to the ballpark to actually watch you, okay, I don’t think it helps that the number one face is a dude that needs an interpreter so you can understand what the hell he’s saying,” Smith said during a segment on First Take. “And that’s what I’m trying to say. Like basketball, Dirk Nowitzki was German and Manu Ginóbili and others were from other places, and guess what, Max? They spoke fluent English. You understood what they were saying when someone was interviewing them.”

In addition to being embarrassingly xenophobic, Smith’s comments are also simply not true. Ohtani may not be fluent in English, but he does speak English, in addition to Spanish and his native Japanese. (You can watch a compilation video of the Angels star speaking English — sans interpreter — here.) How many other athletes — or ESPN commentators, for that matter — speak three languages? But even if he didn’t speak a word of English, who cares? Ohtani is very obviously a once-in-a-generation talent who has sparked plenty of fresh interest in baseball during a time when the sport is struggling to draw young viewers; isn’t that enough to earn him the arbitrary title of “the face of the game”?

As one might expect, Smith’s comments didn’t go over too well, with many on social media pointing out other all-time greats (like Roberto Clemente) whose English was less than perfect and (rightly) scoffing at the idea that an international player can’t be the face of an American league. Keith Olbermann called for Smith to be suspended, writing, “This, about Shohei Ohtani, is straight up racism at a time of dangerous anti-Asian violence.”

Smith, who signed a five-year, $60 million contract with the network back in 2019, is notorious for his controversial takes, but this one’s beyond the pale — it’s racist and objectively incorrect — and we wouldn’t be shocked to see him walk it back with an apology in the coming days. As for Ohtani? As ESPN’s Jeff Passan reports, he’s got a big weekend lined up; he’ll be the starting pitcher for the American League in Tuesday’s All-Star game, where he’ll also bat leadoff as the designated hitter, less than 24 hours after competing as the No. 1 seed in the Home Run Derby tonight. If he’s not the face of the game, who is?

Here’s the full First Take segment:

After catching heat for comments, Smith posted a video to his Twitter account attempting to clarify his take on Ohtani, but he notably did not apologize. You can watch that video below.

Update: On Monday evening, Smith posted an apology to Twitter, writing, “I never intended to offend ANY COMMUNITY, particularly the Asian community — and especially SHOHEI Ohtani, himself. As an African-American, keenly aware of the damage stereotyping has done to many in this country, it should’ve elevated my sensitivities even more. Based on my words, I failed in that regard and it’s on me, and me alone!” He also hinted that he’d offer an additional apology on tomorrow morning’s show. You can read the full apology below.

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