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Editorial: Ignoring Stephen A. Smith’s opinion on WMMA is the wrong thing to do

Why the MMA bubble needs to pay attention to ESPN’s Stephen A. Smith

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Stephen A. Smith is a hot take machine. His outspokenness on topics he understands — and also matters he doesn’t comprehend — have made him a rich man. The five-year deal he inked with ESPN in 2019 reportedly pays him close to $8 million a year. Earlier this week, Smith, who never misses an opportunity to pontificate, offered his opinion on women competing in mixed martial art.

During a recent edition of Larry Whitmore’s Black on the Air podcast, Whitmore asked Smith about women taking leadership roles in sports. Smith almost immediately took things in a weird direction.

“First of all, I love it. I think there’s an awful lot of women who are incredibly qualified to do the jobs they’re doing,” Smith said (transcript by MMA Fighting). “Where I jump off the bandwagon is where they try to engage physically. For example, I don’t ever want to see a woman boxing a man. I don’t want to see that. I don’t want to see a woman in the UFC fighting a man—even though there are some women out there that will kick the dude’s butt.

“When I think about pugilistic sports, I don’t like to see women involved in that at all. I just don’t like it. I wouldn’t pass, I wouldn’t promote legislating laws to prohibit them from doing so, but I don’t want to see women punching each other in the face. I don’t want to see women fighting in the octagon and stuff like that. That’s just me.”

“I certainly, what I adamantly would be against is them fighting men. I don’t think that’s cool. I’m not a proponent of that. Plus you don’t ever want to give men a license to believe that it’s all right to be physical with a woman, to be quite honest with you. You don’t want to do that.”

Smith then reverted to the original question and said he supported women serving in coaching and executive positions in sports and that he hopes to see more of that in the future.

I do not know why Smith responded to a question about women in leadership roles by speaking about men fighting women and then moved onto women competing against women in the UFC. It was a strange few moments and it made little sense, but Smith went there.

Smith loves a controversy. It’s kind of his thing and he stirred up the MMA base with his comments. Some MMA fighters, fans and media representatives ripped into him (myself included), for his opinion. Others said we should ignore Smith. The thinking there being that to pay attention to him would only give Smith what he wants, more attention. I see both sides and I understand Smith is entitled to his opinion, but I think ignoring him is dangerous and here’s why.

Like him or not, Smith is a powerful and ambitious man. According to a recent USA Today story, Smith has his own production company, MrSAS Productions, His ESPN show with Max Kellerman, “First Take,” is a ratings success and he now has an ESPN+ show, “Stephen A’s World,” which airs four times a week. Smith is star and he has enormous reach and influence. That’s what makes him dangerous and harmful to women’s MMA.

Smith’s opinion carries weight. People listen to him. He’s comparable to someone like Donald Trump or Joe Rogan. What he says matters to a huge number of people and some of those people — not all — will parrot what he says. So, when he says, “I don’t want to see women fighting in the octagon and stuff like that,” well, that’s an opinion that some who look up to Smith will mimic.

Those in the MMA bubble need to take Smith seriously — no matter how absurd his opinions are — and attempt to counter his takes. For starters, maybe we should find out why Smith and those that agree with him are okay with men in MMA, but against WMMA. Is their point of view on WMMA based on sexism, misogyny or something else? Do they think women “can’t” fight? If that’s the case, maybe those people can be convinced to watch the Weili Zhang vs. Joanna Jedrzejczyk matchup, which many found to be the fight of the year for 2020. Or perhaps these people need to sit down and listen to women like Julie Kedzie and Laura Sanko, who fought as pros and now commentate on the sport, so they can better understand WMMA. Maybe all of this should start with Smith going to an Invicta FC event with an open mind?

Ignoring Smith and those that share his misguided and antiquated opinion is the easy way out, but it’s also the wrong thing to do. Maybe these individuals will never like WMMA, but we as fans and media need to try to get them to at least open their minds and at least give the sport a chance. Remember, UFC president Dana White once said women would never fight in the UFC and it only took one fighter to change his mind about that.

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