ESPN’s Sage Steele calls Obama’s choice to identify as Black ‘fascinating’: ‘His Black dad was nowhere to be found’
Former NFL quarterback-turned-podcaster Jay Cutler introduced his guest with a bit of a warning.
“She’s been opinionated on a few different topics that are probably hot right now,” he told his audience.
ESPN anchor Sage Steele didn’t disappoint. Over the next hour, Steele called her employer’s vaccine mandate “sick,” told young women breaking into sports journalism that they know what they’re doing when they “dress like that,” and remarked on former president Barack Obama’s Blackness.
Obama, whose father is from Kenya, selected “African-American” when completing his 2010 Census questionnaire. Steele noted the former president was raised by his White mother and maternal grandmother — not his Black father.
Steele was the sole guest on the Sept. 29 episode of the podcast “Uncut With Jay Cutler,” hosted by the former NFL quarterback who played for the Denver Broncos, Chicago Bears and Miami Dolphins during his 12-season career before retiring in 2017.
Toward the start of the interview, Steele — who’s worked at the Walt Disney Co.-owned sports network for nearly 15 years — started out recounting how, when she was coming up in sports journalism, some players would make it difficult for her or inappropriately ask her to dinner in exchange for inside information. She said she didn’t care and found ways to laugh off their advances, chalking up their behavior to them “just being stupid guys in the locker room.”
But, Steele added, she’s rejected recent requests from women asking for her help and advice on how to succeed in the industry because she doesn’t want to associate with reporters who present themselves in certain ways.
“So 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,” Steele said. “Like, women are smart, so don't play coy and put it all on the guys.”
Later in the interview, Steele touched on race, telling a story about how she once got “ripped” on live TV because she insisted on identifying as biracial, which she described as “a huge blessing” and “the best of both worlds.”
One of the TV show’s hosts pushed her to choose “Black” or “White,” Steele said. The host told her the Census Bureau allowed people to select only one and that Obama, who’s also biracial, had chosen Black.
“I’m like, ‘Well, congratulations to the president. That’s his thing.’ I think that’s fascinating considering his Black dad was nowhere to be found, but his White mom and grandma raised him, but hey, you do you. I’m going to do me.”
Toward the end of the episode, Steele addressed the recent mandate from Disney that all employees, including some 4,000 that work for ESPN, be vaccinated against the coronavirus. Steele conceded that the mandate led her to get vaccinated but said she felt “defeated” by doing so.
“I respect everyone’s decision, I really do, but to mandate it is sick and it’s scary to me in many ways,” she said. “But I have a job, a job that I love and, frankly, a job that I need.”
In a statement released Tuesday morning, ESPN said the company embraces “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 company said. “We are having direct conversations with Sage and and those conversations will remain private.”
Steele also released a statement, saying she apologized for her recent comments creating “controversy for the company.”
“We are in the midst of an extremely challenging time and that impacts all of us, and it’s more critical than ever that we communicate constructively and thoughtfully,” she said.
Despite being a self-described “tough” person, Steele said getting the vaccine was painful, implying that the health-care worker who gave it to her hurt her intentionally. “Maybe she thought I was Candace Owens,” Steele said, referencing the Black conservative firebrand who has spoken out against the coronavirus vaccines.
One of Steele’s former co-workers, Jemele Hill, who left ESPN in 2018 following tweets in which she described President Donald Trump as “a white supremacist who has largely surrounded himself with other white supremacists,” called Steele’s comments about Obama and women “Clown behavior.”
Jemele Hill stands by calling President Trump a white supremacist: ‘I thought I was saying water is wet’ Reacting to Steele’s comments about Obama and Blackness, MSNBC host Joy Reid wrote on Twitter that the American construct of race was built by White people seeking to ensure the “purity” of Whiteness as a way of elevating themselves above the African people they were enslaving or their descendants. This gave rise to the “one-drop rule,” the concept that any amount of non-Whiteness — often imagined as “Black blood” — disqualified someone from being White.
Reid tweeted of Obama: “By every European/American-made conception of race he is Black (as is Ms Steele, sorry ma’am!)”
Ben Strauss contributed to this report.
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