(The Daily Signal) – Sage Steele was an 11-year-old girl watching the 1984 Olympics when she decided to become a sportscaster. Some 39 years later—16 of them with ESPN—the mom of three is leaving the sports network that made her vision a reality.
When people ask why she would leave ESPN, Steele is blunt: No one should have to choose between their dreams and free speech.
“It’s broken my heart,” the former “SportsCenter” co-host 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. Steele’s outspokenness on the company’s vaccine mandate, race, transgender sports, the George Floyd riots, and other cultural flashpoints landed her in surprisingly hot water.
Hauled into private conversations with ESPN “brass,” Steele was warned to keep her mouth shut.
“All I ever wanted was consistency,” Steele told podcaster Megyn Kelly in a two-hour conversation Thursday that spanned her rocky relationship with Disney-owned ESPN, adding:
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 she openly blasted the network’s vaccine mandate, ESPN sent Steele home (though it disputes, to this day, that it was a suspension) for violating its unspoken “ban on discussing politics.” The condition to come back: Steele has to apologize, something she says she did not want to do.
“I fought,” she says. “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 she was terrified, Steele admits now, 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,” she says. “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 says, she 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 “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 recently, “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, she argues, 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 adds. “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 outspoken swimmer 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 says she is appalled by the intolerance Steele faced at ESPN.
“It is just incredible that ‘mainstream’ journalism, including sports, is now the servant of ideological narratives rather than simply reporting on them,” Kilgannon told The Washington Stand, adding:
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 OK 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.
Steele’s former employer, meanwhile, has been a sinking financial ship for parent company Disney, 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 ESPN’s partnership with Sage Steele. The “SportsCenter” anchor announced Aug. 15 on X, formerly Twitter, 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 Steele’s 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, Burack pointed out.
“If this were about money, she could have stayed silent,” he wrote, and her lawsuit “informed Disney and companies alike that employees are not powerless. That there are consequences of applying punishment disproportionately on the basis of a companywide 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.”