Last week, ESPN’s Sage Steele made an appearance on Jay Cutler’s podcast and let a slew of ill-advised takes rip. The podcast, which is called Uncut with Jay Cutler, is shot with multiple cameras for some reason, and all of them revel in showing the former QB looking like a forced parody of a media bad boy as he sits alone surrounded by the tools of his trade: a few scented candles and a tasteful cactus. It looks and sounds and feels like a carefully crafted stage upon which to fart out career-maiming opinions, and Steele, operating like someone attempting to bait a lucrative firing, rose to the occasion.
The two discussed ESPN’s COVID-19 vaccine mandate, which Steele called “sick” and “scary,” though unsurprising since Disney is a “global company” (?). She also talked about her time working in locker rooms and facing casual sexual harassment, real struggles that Steele endured early in her career. Her advice to aspiring journalists dealing with similar harassment? “I do think as women, we need to be responsible as well … when you dress like that, I’m not saying you deserve the gross comments, but you know what you’re doing when you’re putting that outfit on too.” But the coup de grâce was Steele’s take on Barack Obama’s race, which was that it was “fascinating” the former President identified as black “considering his black dad was nowhere to be found.”
Her comments achieved escape velocity shortly after they were clipped and put on Twitter on Sunday, and Steele quickly faced consequences. She was scheduled to speak and interview Halle Berry at an espnW’s Women + Sports Summit, though she appears to have been removed from the list of speakers. Michael McCarthy also reports that Steele has been pulled from the air, though, confusingly, he also reports her removal is in part due to a recent COVID-19 diagnosis. ESPN put out a statement admonishing Steele on Tuesday morning:
At ESPN, we embrace different points of view. That said, we expect that those points of view be expressed respectfully, in a manner consistent with our values, and in line with our internal policies. We are having direct conversations with Sage and those conversations will remain private.New York Daily News
It is telling that Steele’s podcast appearance with grim and gritty Jay Cutler was disastrous on so many fronts that ESPN’s statement is ambiguous about which specific points were not expressed respectfully enough. Steele issued an equally vague apology on Tuesday, saying, “I know my recent comments created controversy for the company, and I apologize. We are in the midst of an extremely challenging time that impacts all of us, and it’s more critical than ever that we communicate constructively and thoughtfully.”
Issuing that apology was both a safe career move and an odd turn from someone who seemed to be following a well-established playbook. Given how many media figures have recently cashed in on making public, ideologically motivated departures from their cushy jobs, I had Steele pegged as just another mediocrity looking to get “pushed out” of ESPN for being too conservative and landing a new, well-paying job as a Fox News host. Steele pretty clearly seems set up for such a pivot. She’s annoyed colleagues and management for years, and is one of the most prominent conservative voices at a network under great scrutiny for the degree to which they do or do not stick to sports.
But Steele messed up by apologizing, because it’s a lot harder to get “fired for truth” if you don’t have the conviction to stick to your bad takes and actually get fired, or at least asked kindly to leave. Steele may still find a way to convince the right audience that she is a bold truth-teller who is suffering under the groupthink-type gaze of her intellectually cowardly bosses or whatever, but she’s left herself some work to do. This calls for a Joe Rogan podcast appearance!