During Monday's edition of ESPN's "First Take," Smith commented on the Los Angeles Angels outfielder and pitcher using an interpreter when speaking to the media.
“When you talk about an audience gravitating to the tube or to the ballpark to actually watch you, OK, I don’t think it helps that the No. 1 face is a dude that needs an interpreter so you can understand what the hell he’s saying,” Smith said.
The social media backlash was swift.
Great thing about #MLB there’s no narratives being forced down fans throats. Baseball is a global game. Ohtani, Tatis Jr, Mookie, Judge all are faces for the game. MLB is thriving @stephenasmith pic.twitter.com/b5Sr0mqFrS— Jerry Hairston, Jr. (@TheRealJHair) July 12, 2021
I'll pull the whole thing since First Take is re-airing on ESPN 2 right now but here's another bit pic.twitter.com/FpXTkUvBW6— CJ Fogler #BlackLivesMatter (@cjzero) July 12, 2021
Former "SportsCenter" host Keith Olbermann tweeted in a thread that Smith should be suspended and apologized for his comments.
I’ve supported @stephenasmith when he’s been big at @espn and when he hasn’t, and when he’s been right and when he’s been wrong.— Keith Olbermann (@KeithOlbermann) July 12, 2021
But this, about Shohei Ohtani, is straight up racism at a time of dangerous anti-Asian violence.
This requires an apology, and a suspension. Now. pic.twitter.com/dgYRUxWdvI
“I mean, imagine something even vaguely like this, said about any black athlete or female athlete or even an athlete who doesn’t speak to the media, by anybody else. The commentator would have been fired by now,” Olbermann said.
Olbermann also shared a video of Ohtani, who leads the league in home runs this year, speaking in English as he accepted an award from the Baseball Writers' Association of America two years ago.
Smith, who was previously suspended by the network over domestic violence remarks, later posted a video on Twitter saying people misinterpreted his comments about Ohtani.
Smith said he was "talking about the marketability and the promotion of the sport" and that it "is exactly what Sports Illustrated essentially alluded to in their article last month when they talked about 28 percent of the players in Major League Baseball are foreign players. A lot of them need translators."
On my earlier comments about Ohtani pic.twitter.com/FM0vnDDXBB— Stephen A Smith (@stephenasmith) July 12, 2021
When reached for comment, ESPN pointed to Smith's video explaining his remarks.
Smith's remarks come amid fallout from ESPN host Rachel Nichols’s comments toward colleague Maria Taylor in which Nichols criticized the company’s decision to promote Taylor as the main host of the sports network's NBA halftime show.
Nichols, who served as the lead sideline reporter for NBA coverage, was demoted from her position and replaced by Malika Andrews, who is Black.