Do not think about it too hard or in too much detail, please, but here is a true thing: Stephen A. Smith uses the bathroom. Numbers one and two, as ordinary people do. Skip Bayless also eats lunch, and while it is the same bleak lunch of wan chicken flaps and floppy broccoli each day, he consumes it just as regular humans do. These two toxic muppets—one a drawing of Richard Nixon done with Garry Trudeau's non-dominant hand, the other a horrifically oversized Slim Jim in an oxford shirt—are cartoonishly extreme in their combination of certitude and high-velocity idiocy, even by sports fandom's boggy standards. And yet they are, undeniably, real people.
So when Stephen A. Smith looked into the camera during Monday's episode of First Take and windily threatened Kevin Durant for the offense of dismissing a rumor about Durant that Smith himself had authored, it was both necessary and difficult to remember that this was a real human talking. The material itself is difficult to absorb—Stephen A. has a habit of beginning sentences before he knows how they'll end—but also the mind reels at the prospect of engaging anyone or anything that monomaniacal and overstated on a personal level. Stephen A. Smith simply refused to believe that Kevin Durant knew Kevin Durant's thoughts more clearly than Stephen A. Smith did, and laboriously performed that disbelief in the pause-laden huffiness and barking tweetstorm syntax that are his signatures.
This, of course, is just the sort of bravura ridiculousness that the character named Stephen A. Smith would attempt in a long-running and extremely broad comedy show about the bleak dimness of American public life in 2015. But let's do Stephen A. the dubious honor of assuming that this was the real thing—that a person who was born into this world of ours, and has lived in and moved through it for decades, was saying all this, in this way. Let's try to take it from there.
I mean, we don't have to take it. We can definitely, definitely leave First Take unwatched and somewhere far from our minds. It is the safest and best way to engage with the show, which, after all, no one is making you or me or anyone else watch or care about; if you are reading this, it's unlikely that First Take is the sort of thing that impacts your understanding of sports very much. The uncanny feeling of watching Stephen A. Smith is not limited to this particular meltdown on this particular dystopic program, however, or even to the sports entertainment corporation that has hitched its identity, bafflingly but with great success, to Smith and similar beings of pure overstatement.
Sports failed the Turing test this week, over and over. The real world threw it questions, and the answers that came back scanned without quite making sense. The stories that filled in the fat part of the midweek news cycle—Matt Barnes brawling with Derek Fisher over Gloria Govan, Barnes' ex-wife and Fisher's current girlfriend; Greg Hardy blithely refusing even to feign decency as he returns from a suspension for a harrowing incident of domestic violence, and then Jerry Jones refusing even to feign caring about that—arrived as cartoons, easy and ridiculous, before fizzing down into something bleaker and more recognizably human.
The canned "those crazy NBA players" aspect of the Barnes/Fisher affair inspired a bunch of bummy Twitter jokes—yes, yes, the Triangle Offense—and then gave way to the queasier reality of Barnes punching Fisher and (allegedly) spitting on his ex-wife, in front of his kids. As it belatedly landed that the public figures in this story were, in fact, people—people who, in Barnes' case, clearly need some fucking help, and in Govan's a restraining order—the jokes curdled. Hardy's overstated anti-contrition and Jones' ludicrous free-associative jibbering in defense of it were never exactly funny. But it was a jarring shift from familiar stagy NFL villainy to the chilling realization that neither of these people actually care in the least about Hardy's conviction for beating and threatening to kill his ex-girlfriend. There is something shameful about all this, and retrospectively embarrassing about the period in which we misapprehend an ugly reality as slapstick or soap opera.
This keeps happening. It sure seems like a sign of a discourse that isn't cooking right—that is both too mythic and too arch, and an order of magnitude too dumb. Sports, as most of us live in them, are a TV show. And while we can and do care, maybe too much, about the characters in the other shows that we watch, they can at least be understood correctly as characters playing a part in a story whose ending some author already knows, and whose unreal lives in their unreal worlds won't leave a scratch in ours. The ambient unreality of the sports world outside the games—Bayless and Smith and their garbage-barge playfights and the thousands of turdly binaries bobbing in their wake, the staged arguments and tossed-off Very Important Things—is part of what makes this particular TV show so consuming and compelling; it never really ends. That ceaselessness traps the people upon which all this is leveraged—the superhuman humans that play sports on TV for a few hours a week—in their roles. They are understood, incompletely and callowly and mostly not very well, in character and only in character; it is the only way they're seen or discussed.
There is not a word, yet, for the feeling of relief that comes with the kickoff or the first pitch, but we need one. A game is a manageable thing, with rules and stakes that make sense; many of us have played these games ourselves at some point, and our imagining is more empathetic for that. We recognize the outlines of winners and losers far more easily than abusers and victims; the compromises are plainer, but also go down more easily. A game is easy to read, and at some point teams are just plain out of outs, or out of time. The rest of the programming just goes on, screaming and positing all through the night.
It is a strange thing, to be relieved and relaxed by something as tense as baseball's postseason and the zero-margin cruelty of October's Wild Card games or the hugeness of the moment from one pitch to the next. But there is still some relief in it, if only because the characters are finally back in their intended settings, where they can breathe a little and tell the story themselves, and even write its ending. It says a lot about the fallen and noisy world that's been built around these games that a roaring stadium can seem so uncrowded, and so blessedly quiet, in comparison to everything outside.