ESPN’s Sage Steele: ‘I Feel Like God Put Me Here ... to Call Out the Hypocrisy’
Sage Steele was an 11-year-old girl watching the 1984 Olympics when she decided to become a sportscaster. Thirty-nine years later — 16 of them with ESPN — the mom of three is leaving the network that made her vision a reality. When people ask why, Sage is blunt: No one should have to choose between their dreams and free speech.
“It’s broken my heart,” Steele says now about how things unfolded at ESPN. The self-described “military brat” may not have expected the “cutthroat” environment of sports broadcasting, but the bigger surprise was how differently she was treated for her conservative views. Her outspokenness on the company’s vaccine mandate, race, transgender sports, George Floyd riots, and other cultural flashpoints landed her in surprisingly hot water.
Hauled into private conversations with ESPN “brass,” she was warned to keep her mouth shut. “All I ever wanted was consistency,” Steele told Megyn Kelly in a two-hour conversation that spanned her rocky relationship with the Disney-owned company. “And if we are allowing my peers to go on social media — much less on our own airwaves — saying things … that have nothing to do with sports that are political … then I should be allowed on my personal time to give my opinion on my experiences personally, without telling others what to do. … [T]here were different rules for me than everyone else.”
In 2021, after openly blasting the network’s vaccine mandate, ESPN sent Steele home (though they dispute, to this day, that it was a suspension) for violating their unspoken “ban on discussing politics.” The condition to come back was that Steele apologize, something she says she did not want to do. “I fought. I fought and I begged and I screamed, and I was told that if I want to keep my job, I have to apologize. … I knew there was a line somewhere. I just didn’t know where it was until I crossed it.”
When she returned to work, Steele admits now to being terrified, saying that the workplace had become openly hostile. What bothered her most, she insists, is “the hypocrisy of the rules.” “You can’t have it both ways. You can’t preach diversity and equity and inclusion and tolerance, and then cut people off because they don’t believe the way that you say they’re supposed to believe because of the color of their skin or their gender. It is wrong. And I’m done.”
By 2022, Steele finally had enough. Putting her $3 million salary, credibility, and personal skin on the line, she sued the sports behemoth. Among other things, the lawsuit claimed that “Steele was punished not only for exercising her constitutional right to free speech but the content of that speech.”
“I feel like God has put me here for a reason,” Steele said this week, “not just the way He made me, but … to get out there and have this conversation and to call out the hypocrisy, because that is what it is. And until someone has the courage to call it out on a larger platform, this will continue. And frankly, there are so many people who are afraid to speak up.”
Until then, Sage argued, more people will face the persecution she did:
“Normally, you know, especially for a biracial woman who had made it in a man’s industry, the Left would be celebrating you for speaking so openly and taking it. But no, you said the wrong thing. You see, you’re entitled to an opinion just so long as it aligns with their views on race. That’s the problem. Even you as a biracial woman can get slammed, can get criticized, can be called all sorts of terrible things because your views on race only count if they align with theirs.”
“I refuse to be quiet about this anymore,” Steele said. “I don’t care anymore because this is my experience. … I’m allowed to feel the way I feel. When you try to silence me, I’m done.”
Steele raised the stakes earlier this year by aligning with Riley Gaines in the girls’ sports debate, openly posting, “Are there any other women with public platforms willing to stand up for @Riley_Gaines and the millions of female athletes?? Or do we only stand up for those who fit certain narratives?? LADIES, WHERE ARE YOU? Media… Hollywood… hello?!?! We MUST come together on this!!”
Family Research Council’s Meg Kilgannon is appalled by the intolerance Sage faced. “It is just incredible that ‘mainstream’ journalism, including sports, is now the servant of ideological narratives rather than simply reporting on them,” she told The Washington Stand. “ESPN as a network has become less and less about sport and more about managing men, making sure men are supporting all the correct progressive pieties. I guess the ‘pick me’ girls are okay to ride along as long as they also comply. But a woman who is going to stand up for other women or scientific reality, or sporting principles like fairness, standards, or opportunity seems to have no place at ESPN. This is made crystal clear by those ‘pick me’ girls also throwing Ms. Steele under the bus.”
Her employer, meanwhile, has been a sinking financial ship for its parent company, partly, experts contend, because of its over-the-top wokeness. Now, the company is a financial albatross for Disney CEO Bob Iger, who has his own basket of problems from the nationwide boycott of the mouse house brand.
“ESPN has been Disney’s financial engine for nearly 30 years, powering the company through recessions, box office wipeouts and the pandemic,” The New York Times pointed out this month. “It was ESPN money that helped Disney pay for acquisitions — Marvel, Lucasfilm, Pixar, 21st Century Fox — and build a streaming service, transforming itself into a colossus and perhaps traditional media’s best hope of surviving Silicon Valley’s incursion into entertainment. Those days, ESPN’s best, are over.”
So, it turns out, is its partnership with Sage Steele. On Twitter this week, the “SportsCenter” anchor announced that she has “successfully settled her case with ESPN/Disney,” and has “decided to leave so I can exercise my first amendment rights more freely.” She ended the post with the hashtag #SteeleStrong.
Where her next chapter will take her is anyone’s guess. But, as OutKick writer Bobby Burack wrote on Fox, the brave fixture on America’s sports landscape is a hero. “She beat the ESPN censors and scored a victory for all of us.” Steele didn’t sue to get rich, he pointed out. “If this were about money, she could have stayed silent. … [Sage’s] lawsuit informed Disney and companies alike that employees are not powerless. That there are consequences of applying punishment disproportionately on the basis of a company-wide political bias.”
In the end, Burack argued, “Sage Steelie sent a warning to the executive wing of corporate America. She sent hope to the muzzled wing of the working class. Both messages were heard.”
Suzanne Bowdey serves as editorial director and senior writer at The Washington Stand.