Steele is taking a break from her regular duties after she appeared on an outside podcast and made controversial references regarding President Barack Obama’s racial background; ESPN’s coronavirus policy; and suggested some female journalists court harassment due to their wardrobe choices.
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Steele has long been known to hold more conservative views than many of her colleagues, but the recent remarks, made on “Uncut With Jay Cutler,” appear to have gone a bridge too far for ESPN executives at the Disney company’s Bristol, Conn., headquarters. “At ESPN, we embrace different points of view — dialogue and discussion makes this place great. 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,” the sports-media outlet said in a statement. “We are having direct conversations with Sage, and those conversations will remain private.”
During the podcast, Steele took aim at Disney’s requirement that most employees get vaccinated against the coronavirus, calling it “sick,” and noting that she “didn’t want to” get a shot, though she did. She also indicated she was surprised that President Obama identifies as Black.
Steele is also off the air because she recently tested positive for coronavirus, according to a person familiar with the matter. The anchor will not take part in ESPN’s espnW summit, which focuses on women in sports, and is expected to return to full duty sometime next week.
“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,” Steele said in a statement provided by ESPN.
Steele hasn’t been afraid to play the role of off-air provocateur. On Instagram, she once chided Tampa Bay Buccaneers wide receiver Mike Evans about his decision to protest during “The Star-Spangled Banner.” And The Wall Street Journal detailed last year that she felt she was excluded from an ESPN special program about race because other Black employees disliked some of her views.
That hasn’t kept ESPN from putting her in prominent roles. She once contributed to “NBA Countdown,” but more recently, has been deployed on various editions of “SportsCenter.” She told Variety in 2017 that she basically ignored any criticism she might spark on social media. “The more people have been vocal about me, the stronger I’ve gotten and the easier it’s gotten for me to not really pay attention and not really care,” she said, and tries to focus on her job and family. “I don’t have enough hours in the week for those two things.”
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