If you tuned into ESPN over the course of the last 15-plus years, you likely saw Sage Steele at the anchor desk of SportsCenter, hosting the Rose Parade, or out covering a sporting event at least once or twice.
The veteran sportscaster was a top talent at the network for more than a decade, but that all changed in the fall of 2021 after she appeared on former NFL quarterback Jay Cutler’s podcast Uncut with Jay Cutler. She and Cutler discussed the COVID-19 vaccine mandate at Disney, how women in the media present themselves, and her experience being a biracial American.
What happened to Steele professionally in the wake of that interview led her to file a lawsuit against ESPN that, as she shared on X (formerly known as Twitter) earlier this week, was recently settled. The settlement coincided with the end of her time at the network.
“Having successfully settled my case with ESPN/Disney, I have decided to leave so I can exercise my first amendment rights more freely,” she tweeted. “I am grateful for so many wonderful experiences over the past 16 years and am excited for my next chapter!”
On Thursday’s show, Steele joined Megyn for her first interview since the announcement. She opened up about what happened behind the scenes in the wake of her ‘controversial’ comments, how it compared to the treatment of her similarly outspoken colleagues, and what comes next.
Steele appeared on episode six of Cutler’s podcast on September 29, 2021. She told Megyn she did it mostly as a favor to his publicist, who she knew. The interview ran more than an hour, but there were three specific topics Steele and Cutler discussed that made headlines.
The first involved her remarks about Disney’s COVID-19 vaccine mandate. As she shared, the interview just so happened to take place on the day she got her first shot – a decision that had been weighing on her. “I literally was late taking the shot because I sat in my car crying saying I cannot believe I’m gonna go against what I believe is right… to keep my job,” she told Megyn. “I’m a single mother of three – their father is here and he’s a wonderful father, but I’m 100 percent the breadwinner – and I knew that I had no choice.”
When Culter inquired about the bandaid on her arm, she confirmed that she had received the vaccine and offered her thoughts on the Disney corporate policy that included ESPN. “I respect everyone’s decision. I really do. But to mandate it is sick,” Steele said at the time. “It’s one thing with masks, and I don’t have a problem with that. It’s another thing when you force this.”
During the show, Steele and Cutler also talked about her heritage as a biracial woman (her mother is white and her father is Black). They discussed an appearance she had on The View years before when Barbara Walters inquired about how she fills out her census forms.
That then evolved into a conversation about how former President Barack Obama handles his mixed-race identity. “‘Barack Obama chose Black and he’s biracial’ and I’m like, well, congratulations to the president, that’s his thing,” Steele recounted to Cutler. “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 gonna do me.”
Additionally, the two talked about how women present themselves in the workplace – especially in sports media. “I do think as women, we need to be responsible as well. It isn’t just on players and athletes and coaches to act a certain way,” Steele told Cutler. “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.”
Less than a week after the podcast dropped, ESPN put out a statement condemning Steele’s remarks. “At ESPN, we embrace different points of view — dialogue and discussion makes this place great,” the company said. “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.”
Steele also released an apology: “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.”
As she told Megyn, the mea culpa was not by choice. “I own everything… I would say it again today, and I still believe it,” she said. “I did not want to apologize – I fought and I fought, and I begged and I screamed, and I was told that if I want to keep my job I have to apologize.”
As she explained, she was under the impression that she would be able to resume her normal duties after the apology. That did not turn out to be the case. “I thought that that was going to be the end of it because that’s what I was told,” she recalled. “But it continued and there were events taken away that I’d worked years to get and I was just told, you know, ‘Hey, we need a little more time.’”
Steele found herself sidelined for much of the rest of the year – including from the 2021 espnW Summit for women that she long played a prominent role in. But it was when she was removed from the team covering the Rose Parade that she reached her breaking point. “Quite often we say, ‘Alright, one more time, it’s over and I’m done,’” she shared. “I knew that there was a line somewhere, I just didn’t know what it was until it was crossed. And when I lost the Rose Parade… that was it.”
At the time, Steele said she didn’t necessarily know what she was going to do, but she knew that she had “mentally checked out” and was “heartbroken.” In 2022, she filed a lawsuit against her employer alleging Disney/ESPN had retaliated against her for the comments she made to Cutler. They settled this summer.
Now unemployed, Steele admitted that she is still coming to terms with everything that happened. “Even when you know it’s coming, because I did… this is the first time I’ve ever been separated from a company in this way,” she said. “I was always such a goody two shoes and ‘let’s not ruffle any feathers’… I just feel overwhelmed with every single emotion.”
What makes the situation with Steele particularly interesting is the fact that ESPN has openly waded into politics and social issues in recent years. Former SportsCenter host Jemele Hill tweeted extensively about her dislike of former President Donald Trump and what she considered his ties to white supremacy but received mild punishment.
Anchors and commentators expressed their feelings about race on ESPN airwaves in the wake of George Floyd’s death in May 2020. More recently, moments of silence were observed for “LGBTQIA+ teammates at Disney” in response to Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis’ Parental Rights in Education legislation (nicknamed the ‘Don’t Say Gay Bill’ by detractors). “All fine, not punished,” Megyn said of those numerous examples. “What Sage said in those three Jay Cutler sound bites, different story.”
In Steele’s view, she was treated differently than her colleagues. “All I ever wanted was consistency,” she said. “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, that are not true quite often… then I should be allowed, on my personal time, to give my opinion on my experiences personally without telling others what to do or how to feel about being biracial or being forced to take a vaccine.”
Ultimately, all she wanted was consistency. “Either a rule is a rule for everybody or nobody,” Steele concluded. “You can’t pick and choose – especially with just one person. It was just me.”
You can check out Megyn’s full interview with Steele by tuning in to episode 610 on YouTube, Apple Podcasts, or wherever you like to listen. And don’t forget that you can catch The Megyn Kelly Show live on SiriusXM’s Triumph (channel 111) weekdays from 12pm to 2pm ET.