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Chris Russo Is Becoming A Liability For First Take

“Russo may very well be speaking for the attitudes and opinions of a significant part of the audience, but he’s either unable or unwilling to defend those points in an actual debate.”

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Chris Russo First Take

It used to be possible for the codgers of sports media to say things about pro athletes without actually saying them.

You could reference the number of tattoos, the bagginess of the clothing or talk about the demonstrativeness on the court and leave it at that. Some people would object to the undertones or point out the implications, but in general, you were allowed to be a grumpy curmudgeon without having to spell out exactly why you wanted these younger athletes off your lawn.

However, the time in which these sort of declarations went unchecked ended well before this past Wednesday. This was unfortunate for Chris Russo because this past Wednesday is when he made his weekly appearance with Stephen A. Smith on ESPN’s First Take and wound up getting dunked with two hands by JJ Redick, who was best known as a marksman during his playing career and did not miss after taking aim at Russo on Wednesday. If you haven’t seen a blow-by-blow, take a second to get caught up here.

All caught up? Good. Now let’s put a microscope over this 10 minutes of content, which I found to be absolutely incredible. Then again, I’m the type who finds it funny when someone gets metaphorically pantsed in public, which is what ultimately happened to to Russo.

There was a specific reason for that, and it has nothing to do with Russo’s initial reaction to the press-conference clip of Draymond Green explaining his middle-fingered salute to the Memphis crowd in the first half of Thursday’s game.

Here’s a transcription of what Russo said:

“Oh, he’s so hard to root for you. Oh God. Shut up and play will you please? America is tired of Draymond Green … Just be quiet and play. We all know he’s got a great skillset for that team, but who in the world is sitting there, he’s so polarizing, I can’t root for him. I understand how good he is. I can’t root for him.”

It’s a great opinion, and I say that even though I do not agree with that opinion nor do I think his characterization of Green’s popularity is accurate. But it’s a strong reaction to an equally strong statement from a prominent player involving a controversial moment. This is the meat-and-potatoes of sports debate, and when it was Redick’s turn to talk, he analyzed both what Russo was saying and what he was implying.

Tactically, Redick was precise, pointing out that contrary to Russo’s assertion that America was tired of Green, there’s significant evidence that there are a large number of people very interested in Green’s opinion. Then Redick pointed out that Green’s lack of a filter is not only why people are interested, but what makes him a good player. But the most compelling part of the response was Redick’s refusal to let Russo say he couldn’t root for Green without explaining why or exploring the implications.

And Russo either couldn’t or wouldn’t explain why he couldn’t root for Green. He shifted from his opinion, which was that he can’t root for Green because he talks so much, to emphasizing how many people shared this fatigue over Green. If at any point in an argument you find yourself pointing to the number of people who agree with you, it’s a pretty good sign that you’ve run out of actual points. 

Russo: “God, he is so polarizing. For all the fans that you think listen to the podcasts and watch him, I can give you 50 million fans that would tell you the same thing, ‘Enough already.’

“So he is a polarizing athlete. Sure, there are certain younger fans especially that like to hear him play. I’ll give you a large segment of older fans who have followed the NBA for 60 years, this is not a political scenario or a race situation, who have followed Wilt and grew up as a Knick fan and loved Clyde and loved Reed who can’t stand,” and at this point Redick jumped in.

Redick: “The fans you’re talking, they talk about athletes that way like you just talked about an athlete.

“The people on FOX News talk about athletes that way. And that’s my issue. That’s my issue. I don’t actually care about the fans that watched Bob Cousy play or watched Wilt play. I don’t care. I appreciate that they’ve been NBA fans that long, but I don’t appreciate the undertone.”

Let’s pause there for a second. As an overall piece of content, it’s great. The passion, the energy and I loved the way Redick snuffed Russo’s argument.

From a programming standpoint, though, I think it exposed Russo as a liability. This is not because his opinion is unpopular. It’s not. I would guess about half the country would lean toward his side of this specific debate. The problem is that Russo is either unwilling or unable to explain the underlying rationale. He tried to say something without saying it, and the result was he wound up looking like a piñata.

That might be a viable approach. For years networks with a specific political orientation have brought on members of the opposition party to serve as strawmen in arguments, but I don’t think that’s what ESPN is seeking to do this segment. Just look at the way Stephen A. Smith hit pause after this specific exchange between Russo and Redick.

Smith: “Hold on, hold on, hold on. Let’s calm down. Let’s calm down. Because I’m glad you pointed out JJ it’s not a race thing. Because with Doggie it’s not.”

Smith realized that Russo was out in the deep water, unable to touch bottom and in danger of going under.

Smith: “You do have old-school fans that lament the fact that you’ve got a lot of folks that are just saying, ‘Enough already, enough already.’ Me and you, we think differently. Lemme tell you, I encounter it all the time, there’s a whole bunch of Mad Dog Russos running around. I’m here to tell you right now, it’s unbelievable. There’s no question about it.”

Russo laughed loudly when Smith mentioned the number of Mad Dogs running around, the tension defused. Smith clearly likes Russo, and he’s willing to gently tease Russo about the holes in his logic to create a good-natured back-and-forth without digging into the actual reasons why Russo may think that way.

If that’s the kind of dynamic ESPN is seeking with Russo, the network will need to keep Russo away from anything sharp. Not everyone will be as patient nor should they be. As someone who finds Russo’s entire act antiquated and annoying, I hope more people take a scalpel to what he’s saying much in the way Redick did, trying to expose both the reasons and the implications of Russo’s disdain for Green. Russo may very well be speaking for the attitudes and opinions of a significant part of the audience, but he’s either unable or unwilling to defend those points in an actual debate.

Not that I’m complaining about that. I enjoyed every second of watching Russo’s .22-caliber argument get obliterated by Redick’s .357 Magnum response.

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