ESPN’s Sage Steele Doesn’t Care What You Think; She Knows She’s Right

It's 7 a.m. and SportsCenter: AM co-anchor Sage Steele is rushing to the studio. She's about to spend the next three hours sparring with her co-hosts. She charges ahead — there’s only two minutes before the show goes live — so it seems as though the towering 5’11” anchor is going to pass me by with no acknowledgment. Then she stops.

“Do you hate me?" Sage asks.

It’s a jarring question given the fact that we haven’t yet formally met. At first I don't know if she's referring to the many people who love to hate her on Twitter and the comments sections on sports websites or if she’s referring to the fact that I had to get up at 3:00 a.m. to make it to the set on time. I figure it’s the latter, and she confirms as much when she apologizes for the ungodly hour I must have roused myself to be there with her in Bristol, Connecticut. And then she’s off, focused on the show ahead, a version of SportsCenter that requires five shots of espresso to keep up.

Sportscenter: AM is the longest live show on ESPN’s lineup and Steele and her co-anchors, Randy Scott and Jay Harris, will engage in the fast-paced verbal volleys, quips, and analysis the trio is known for. (“He’s showboating!” Steele yells after a Golden State Warriors highlight featuring an absurd play to end the game.) It all moves so fast that from the sidelines it looks like an exercise in endurance: “It was designed that way,” Steele says when we meet for an interview in ESPN’s cafeteria after the broadcast. “In the mornings… the average viewing time is 11 minutes. And so let’s give people what they want — let’s go, go, go!”

In the six months since she's joined SportsCenter: AM it's clear that Steele, who has emerged as a cornerstone of ESPN’s morning coverage, thrives on the hyperspeed and saying what she thinks. This is the reputation she's built after a decade at the network. While reporting from the sidelines of the NBA All-Star celebrity game last year, she shut down Arcade Fire frontman Win Butler when he tried to get political; another time she gave former co-host Bill Simmons epic on-air side eye after he complained about having to wait too long to speak. She has also become known for her controversial opinions on everything from athletes protesting during the anthem (she's anti) to airport demonstrations (she did not care for the inconvenience). In this interview, she even had some thoughts on Jemele Hill’s political comments (more on that later).

These are all bold moves for a biracial woman at a network known for bolstering white men. But the 44-year-old broadcaster doesn't care: “I’m finally okay being me and it’s taken me a long time to figure out who I am on air,” she says. “That means sometimes I get a little hyper during highlights because I love this. Those are genuine reactions. And so sometimes I talk too fast and sometimes I get too excited and sometimes I jump in on questions or accidentally interrupt people. It’s just an enthusiasm for sports.”

That adrenaline has led Steele to become one of the network’s most talked about stars and most versatile of broadcasters, transitioning seamlessly from anchoring at a desk to sideline reporting and back again. But recently the business has changed, demonstrated by the challenges the network itself has navigated of late. As the #MeToo reckoning continues to sweep the country, ESPN is facing its own sexual harassment allegations (“All I can say is that personally, my experience has been just fine,” Steele says of her 11 years at the company.) And then just before the holidays, long-time company president John Skipper resigned after announcing he would seek treatment for substance abuse. All this comes at a time when the sports juggernaut is struggling to remain relevant and “sticking to sports” is getting harder to do — especially with network star Jemele Hill emerging as a face of the resistance, football players continuing their anthem protests to keep the conversation going, and the president attacking them at every turn.

Steele isn’t sure she likes those changes, and she’s brought a decidedly different point of view to the table, coming down firmly on the side of keeping politics off-air. She said as much when she told The Washington Post that people don't watch SportsCenter “to hear about Charlottesville." This has made her something of a villain in some circles, but Steele has strong convictions: “If it crosses the line, and Colin Kaepernick is an NFL player, and there are some political or social topics surrounding his name, well then, you do [the story]. Otherwise, why are we doing it?” Steele says. “To me, that’s our focus. And I will never be convinced otherwise. When ESPN hired me ten years ago, they hired me to talk about sports.”

True as that may be, Steele knows it’s getting harder to keep them as separate as she’d like — “these are different times,” she tells me. It’s also true that she has not shied away from expressing sometimes unpopular opinions on social media in the past year, sharing her frustration on Instagram about airport protests following Trump’s travel ban, (though she tells me that people misinterpreted her words) and scolding Tampa Bay Buccaneers player Mike Evans for choosing to kneel during the anthem. As a military brat who grew up on bases all around the world, Steele has strong feelings about the American anthem and flag. This is why she tweeted a photo of Arlington National Cemetery and urged Evans to “look up definition of the word DEMOCRACY & remember this pic while kneeling.” She could not have imagined it would blow up like it did and did not expect the fallout that came with her tweet. “I retweeted something that ESPN had posted, which was a soundbyte from him on why he was kneeling,” she explains. “So I didn’t know about it until ESPN tweeted it. It’s not like I grabbed it from somewhere else.”

The backlash Steele experienced was brutal. It ranged from death threats to racial slurs to people telling her they hoped her daughters got raped. “I had to look up some of the words they called me,” she says. Steele thought she would write something to expound on her thoughts about diversity, explain herself. “For years and years of being biracial and feeling like I’m not Black enough, I’m not white, my husband’s white, I’m a sell out, my mom’s white, my dad’s Black,” she says. “As I was writing it, I realized, ‘gosh this has really taken its toll.’” She posted to Facebook, speaking directly to the Black community, saying, “Instead of praising or uplifting each other, way too many people of color choose to tear down, mock and spew hatred at other blacks who feel differently, think differently, or make decisions that are different from theirs.”

It didn’t go well. Instead of putting out the fire, “it got a thousand times worse,” she says. Steele’s brother, Chad Steele, said it was incredibly painful to see his sister attacked on the level that she was. “For people to go back and personally attack her for her race, her family, what she does, is hurtful. As a brother it hurts me and pisses me off and I want to react but I know I can’t,” he tells me. “A lot of times people think people on TV should be infallible and they’re not, you can’t be. But people also need to understand that there’s a human behind there.”

SportsCenter: AM co-anchor Harris thinks their show is better for having hosts with a variety of opinions and perspectives. “We don’t have to agree on everything. I kind of like that we don’t agree on everything because you broaden your own mind and your own perspectives when you talk to someone who has a different view,” he says. Steele has “taken a lot of hits and we all, at times, bring things on ourselves because... we’re individuals with likes and dislikes, opinions that not everyone is going to agree with. All of us. You have to have a certain strength to stay your course and to do you.”

For Steele that strength comes from family. Steele is one of three kids and her parents’ only daughter; she grew up watching football with her dad, who played in college. By the time she was 12, Steele announced to her family that she was going to talk about sports on TV. “I knew I’d never be a good enough athlete to do anything past high school, sadly,” she says. When she got to Indiana University Bloomington, Robin Roberts was working at ESPN and she got a first glimpse at a possible future. “I worshipped her,” Steele says.

Her aunt recently sent her a letter Steele had written after she graduated, while she working at a TV station and waiting tables on the side. “I said, ‘I’m producing, haven’t gotten on air yet but I’m gonna force my way on. I know that my dream of working at ESPN is out there somewhere,’” Steele says, tearing up as she tells the story. “I wrote, ‘It’s gonna take me a long time, but I’m determined to get there and this is the first step.’”

Prior to arriving at ESPN, Steele honed her broadcasting chops. Her first job was for the CBS affiliate in South Bend, Indiana and then in Indianapolis, where she believes she was the first woman sports broadcaster. She covered the Indianapolis Colts and Pacers and events such as the NCAA Men’s Final Four and the Indianapolis 500. In 1998, she went to Tampa, Florida to work for the ABC affiliate covering local and college sports in Tampa, before moving on to Fox Sports Florida, which involved covering Central Florida’s professional sports teams — the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, Orlando Magic, Tampa Bay Devil Rays, and Tampa Bay Lightning.

“She has busted her butt to get where she is,” says her brother, Chad, who is the Vice President of Public Relations for the Baltimore Ravens. The two have a unique sibling relationship because they work in a similar industry and, for four years, Steele worked as the beat reporter for the Ravens at Comcast SportsNet — where she went after leaving Florida in 2001 — while Chad was the head of PR. In her role at Comcast SportsNet in Baltimore/Washington, D.C., she also served as the co-host of the regional network’s nightly news show.

In 2007, Steele finally landed at ESPN with a role on SportsCenter. In the beginning it was hard: When she got to ESPN, women in sports media were still few and far between.“I wish I had more role models, like direct role models, female role models, but there weren’t many,” Steele says. She didn’t find many of the other women to be supportive, because competition for the jobs was cutthroat, though that has eased up over the years as more and more women have been welcomed into the fold.

Steele anchored SportsCenter from 2007-2013, then spent the last four years hosting NBA Countdown and SportsCenter On The Road. She says that returning to the SportsCenter desk is somewhat of a homecoming for her, albeit one that is bittersweet: It was the newly departed Skipper who played a major part in Steele’s new role on SportsCenter: AM, flying to Arizona last spring to offer her the job in person and his departure stings. “Over the past year or so, our relationship had grown into one that I really cherished. It’s rare to be able to be fully candid with your biggest boss but I was fortunate that John welcomed me, welcomed my thoughts and opinions, and was so genuinely helpful to me both professionally and personally,” she says.

A self-described “night owl,” Steele is still adjusting to her new schedule. “I literally cry when the alarm goes off,” she says. Prepping for the show is a “cram session,” one she squeezes in while parenting her three kids. In addition to catching up on game and news highlights while she gets ready — her secret weapon, she tells me, is a TV in the bathroom — Steele Googles information on her phone during commercial breaks while filming. (She also dons a leopard print Snuggie to stay warm while doing this last-minute research.)

Even after spending only a few hours together, the fact that Steele is a strong personality on and off camera is clear. But the significance of who she is and what she’s doing cannot be ignored; being a visible woman of color in news media is a big deal. In sports media, even more so. And now with the weight of a successful career behind her, Steele wants to lift other women up, and she says it’s something she’s strived to do since arriving on the scene.

“She’s called me on everything from ‘let’s talk about your contract’ to ‘here is my agent’s number,’ and from the business side of things — salaries and what she makes,” says Jessica Mendoza, ESPN’s Sunday Night Baseball broadcasters and one of Steele’s good friends. “It’s helpful to have an ally in this business and to have an understanding of what the market is and why you get paid different amounts for different roles.”

Steele expressed that same support for her colleague Sam Ponder, ESPN’s Sunday NFL Countdown host. When Ponder tweeted screenshots of sexist and misogynist comments about her from the website Barstool Sports, Steele tweeted at her to “stay strong.”

“When I was going through my social media attacks, I felt really, really, really alone in every single way. It’s hard when you’re being attacked and no one publicly will support you,” she explains. “I now know, having experienced it, how important it is to have that. The second I saw what was going on with Sam, like, ‘I got your back.”

And what about her colleague, Jemele Hill, who will soon be transitioning into a new role at ESPN after co-anchoring the 6 p.m. SportsCenter for the past year? “I think Jemele is a completely different story in that she put that onto herself of her own volition. Sam had been attacked,” says Steele. “I think that’s an important distinction.”

In truth, she acknowledges that it’s not that simple. While social media can be a powerful tool, Steele says, “We’re all afraid to comment on things in general these days because you don’t want anyone to take it the wrong way… I just think we’re in very tough times. And I will say this, it’s not a lack of supporting Jemele, it’s simply, I just try to abide by the rules.” She says she now tries to follow Chad the PR professional’s advice to “‘just don’t push send.’ And it has proven to be a pretty wise decision in most cases recently.”

Speaking for what she’s learned from her own time in the hot seat, Steele says, “When you’re a public figure and you choose to make a choice to express yourself, things come with that. People are gonna take what they wanna take from what you say and what you do and at some point, you’ve got to let go of that. Or just don’t talk.”

What this past year has taught Steele is that she doesn’t care what anyone thinks about her anymore. She quit beating herself up about trying to be a certain way or trying to please people on social media. “It is so cool and such a relief to finally be able to say, ‘I don’t care.’ It’s just taken a long time. Say what you want about me. Bring it, I’m good now.” Plus, she adds with a laugh, “I know I’m right.”

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