Cool or Drool: Durant, Smith Square Off in Exaggerated Feud

Dan Bisno, Columnist

National sports nowadays are 80 percent reality TV show and 20 percent actual sports game. With the endless sports commentary shows, Twitter feuds and general gossip, many sports fans have become more enamored with the players’ personal lives than with their game performance. Amid all this excitement, sports stars are under more media scrutiny than ever before. Rarely are players described as any­thing other than victims of the scandal­izing media, consistently ripped apart by the ruthless mass of camera-toting individuals known as sports reporters.

This brings us to the most recent NBA media feud: Kevin Durant versus Stephen A. Smith. For those of you who don’t know, Durant is the star small forward for the Oklahoma City Thun­der and arguably one of the best bas­ketball players in the world. He earned the Most Valuable Player award in 2014 before a serious foot injury benched him during the 2014-2015 campaign. Durant’s contract with the Thunder is set to end after the upcoming season, when he will become the most sought-after free agent, able to sign with any team that can afford the hefty max contract price he will likely demand. Smith, on the other hand, is one of the most successful and publicized sports reporters of the last two decades. Every basketball fan recognizes his face and distinct voice; he currently reports on ESPN’s First Take, where he frequently plants seeds for his future feuds to grow.

Smith recently reported that inside sources close to Durant have suggested that the superstar is likely to sign with the Los Angeles Lakers once his con­tract with the Thunder expires. Durant was not happy about this revelation, so he did what he had to do: call out Smith for this harmless piece of gossip. He bluntly explained to reporters, “I don’t talk to Stephen A. Smith at all. Nobody in my family, my friends, they don’t talk to Stephen A. Smith, so he’s lying.”

Full disclosure — I have been a little hard on Durant in the past. After all, like all sports stars, he undergoes constant criticism for every mildly contentious word that leaves his mouth. But while guys like Smith are fit for the spotlight and bask in it, relatively quiet guys like Durant don’t. However, as a basketball phenom he is constantly pressured to be a major philanthropist and answer every ridiculous question the media throws at him, no matter how infuri­ating or irritating. So understandably, when a seemingly respectable reporter like Smith — who doesn’t need the triv­ial brownie points of an outlandish ru­mor to help him advance his standing within ESPN — made an unfounded claim about Durant’s free agency agen­da, Durant retaliated.

In response, Smith provided his spin on his journalistic ethics to First Take viewers a few days later. “We don’t have to talk to you to talk about you,” he argued. Truthfully, while Durant felt that Smith’s free agency propaganda was false, it was realistically more be­nign than most assumptions reporters make about players. Smith was fully within his jurisdiction to make a state­ment about Durant’s supposed landing spot after free agency.

Smith also recalled the words Du­rant used to describe the media after the 2015 NBA All-Star game: “I really don’t care. Y’all not my friends. You’re going to write what you want to write.” Undoubtedly, Smith was trying to portray himself as the victim in this conflict by highlighting Durant’s past resentment of the media. For example, Durant’s best friend and teammate, Russell Westbrook, has been the sub­ject of countless feuds with the media. After Durant told his mother, “You the real MVP,” in his MVP acceptance speech, the media helped the phrase go viral, and even non-basketball fans began to use it as a joke. Durant later made it clear that he found this offen­sive and that he believed the media was directly to blame for turning what was meant to be a heartfelt moment into online entertainment. The superstar greatly disapproves of the misguided intentions of the media, steadfast in his belief that they scavenge for entertain­ing news stories rather than reporting on true ones.

It’s unfortunate that this was a huge news story this week, and that The New York Times, The Washington Post and others all tried to pitch in their own opinions in order to fuel the feud. This story is emblematic of another is­sue: that reporters sometimes lie and harass players, selfishly abusing their rights to speak with a player to expedite their success. Just because it’s within their jurisdiction doesn’t make it right, because in many cases no one really cares who starts a story, but rather who the story is about. Journalists have un­limited freedom to describe athletes in whatever light that they see fit regard­less of the context, whereas athletes bear all the responsibility of stories in which they have no say in, true or not. It is understandable why an increasing number of athletes are getting fed up. I would argue that Durant has been the subject of this far too many times, and that he unfortunately blew up at the wrong time over the wrong story.

It doesn’t help that Smith is notori­ous for making snarky comments about players’ personalities and their athletic skill, like telling NFL wide receiver Josh Gordon that he was done with him af­ter Gordon’s marijuana suspension, or his famous Kwame Brown rant, where he called out the then-Lakers center as being a “bona fide scrub.” Maybe Smith was just trying to bait a feud or spark a news story. Regardless, this feud rep­resents a rare example of a dispute be­tween a player and the media that be­came more personal than professional. Ultimately, both men received negative attention due to the expansive reach of their fan bases.

Both of these men are role models and leaders in their respective organi­zations, which rely heavily on each oth­er for their success. It is disheartening to see such beloved men squabble over a trivial disagreement on the public stage. But still, the NBA is America’s fa­vorite soap opera, and fans are having a field day with this story. Therefore, both Smith and Durant are a drool this week.