Insults from detractors may be taking a toll on ESPN’s “First Take” host Stephen A. Smith.

He seems to carry the weight of criticisms that he was an “affirmative action hire.” The sports authority brought up that phrase during a phone interview in the run-up to his appearance in the Twin Cities for the Super Bowl. The way he reacted to questions in Part 2 of my interview suggests that there is a softer side of Smith. When he’s on TV and radio, he seems combatively voluble.

Because he was a compelling former newspaper sports columnist in the gritty city of Philadelphia, I thought his skin would be a little tougher. But maybe all the traits that make him such an entertaining TV personality are an act, like when he plays the “little voice in my stomach” in Oberto Beef Jerky commercials.

One thing that I thought could not be an act is all the ego Smith projects on air, but I guess I have to rethink that, because Smith considers himself humble about a number of things.

Q: That speech you gave to college students in Alabama that informed them they are not experiencing old-fashioned racism was one of the most cogent observations on the subject that I’ve heard.

A: I don’t look at it as old-fashioned or new-fashioned. When I give speeches around the country, [I] remind the kids that no matter what obstacle they are going to face, no matter how tough it is, it’s not tougher than what your ancestors had to endure. And if they could overcome such levels of adversity, so could you. So don’t think for one second it’s going to be an excuse that’s going to be utilized for you to explain why you’re deprived of something. You have challenges just like everybody else. And that is not to minimize it, not to say that it’s not significant, but also no excuse to give up, to just keel over and act like the world has defeated you. There’s no excuse for it; if folks who came before you can overcome, so can you. That’s my message to kids in today’s generation.

 

Q: Do you spend a lot of money on your suits?

A: Yes, I do.

Q: Delight your viewers and listeners by confirming that you have at least one loquacious child who wears you out with words?

A: I don’t talk about my personal life like that. Even if that were the case, I would never admit it.

Q: How many books do you read in a week?

A: I don’t have time to read books. I’ve read my share of books throughout my life and I will continue to do so. For the most part, I read newspapers. I read newspapers and stuff online because I have to prepare myself for the challenges on a daily basis. You have to know what’s going on currently.

 

Q: Are you a know-it-all when there is not a mike in front of you?

A: I know what I know, and what I don’t know I’m willing to admit. I don’t know whether it’s on the air or off the air. I don’t believe I ever come across as a know-it-all. I’m somebody [who] is willing to say, “I don’t know,” and I’ll say it publicly as well as privately. But if I believe I know, then I believe I know.

 

Q: Is there anything about which you are humble?

A: I think a lot about me is humble. But when somebody is in your face and you’ve been called an affirmative action hire and somebody who’s just gotten an opportunity because of affirmative action, when you’ve been called the N-word, when you’ve been labeled somebody [who] is just a beneficiary of some policy that had been implemented by our government because of its historical past, or what have you, you’ve got to believe in yourself. Because it’s not about walking around cocky or devoid of humility. It’s about walking around letting people know: You’re not going to break me no matter how hard you try. If that is being absent of humility, then so be it.

 

Q: Are you any good at household repairs — a leaky sink, a toilet that is running, the shower head needs replacing? Can you fix those kinds of things?

A: I’m OK at that. That’s how I got where I am. I iron my own clothes, I do my own laundry. I take care of myself. I’ve been taking care of myself all my adult life.

 

C.J. can be reached at cj@startribune.com and seen on Fox 9’s “Buzz.” E-mailers, please state a subject; “Hello” does not count.