ESPN benches Sage Steele after remarks criticizing company’s vaccination policy

A woman in a white jean jacket and black top holds a microphone
Sage Steele hosts the Players Tailgate at Super Bowl LIV in Miami.
(Jeff Lewis / AP)

Veteran ESPN host Sage Steele is off the air this week after criticizing the Walt Disney Co. unit’s vaccination policy on a podcast.

Steele, who handles the midday edition of “SportsCenter,” appeared on a Sept. 29 episode of “Uncut with Jay Cutler,” hosted by the former NFL quarterback, where she called vaccine mandates “sick” and “scary.”

Steele also questioned why former President Barack Obama identified as Black when his mother was white and his father was not part of his upbringing.

After Steele’s remarks were reported by Front Office Sports, ESPN pulled Steele from the air. Steele, who recently tested positive for COVID-19, will be back sometime next week, according to a representative for the network.

“At ESPN, we embrace different points of view — dialogue and discussion makes this place great,” an ESPN representative said in a statement. “We expect those points of view be expressed respectfully, in a manner consistent with our views, and in line with our internal policies. We are having direct conversations with Sage and those conversations will remain private.”


The NFL’s start is its strongest since 2016, the year the league faced criticism from then-presidential candidate Donald Trump over players kneeling during the national anthem to protest police violence against the Black community.

Sept. 29, 2021

Steele, who joined ESPN in 2007, issued a statement apologizing for her remarks.

“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.

Steele told Cutler she got her COVID-19 vaccine on Sept. 29, a day before the deadline set by Disney’s policy, after long resisting it.

“I didn’t want to do it but I work for a company that mandates it and I had until Sept. 30 or I was out,” Steele said.

“I respect everyone’s decision, I really do, but to mandate it is sick and it’s scary to me in many ways,” she added. “I don’t know what comes next, but I do know for me personally, I feel like [I’m] defeated.”

Steele raised Obama in a discussion with Cutler about how she insists on being identified as biracial rather than Black.

Even before Rachel Nichols’ comments about Maria Taylor surfaced, ESPN had failed its journalists of color by failing to invest in the leadership needed to address such a situation.

July 6, 2021


“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,” Steele said.

Steele, who comes from a military family, is known for occasionally expressing conservative views and promoting “diversity of thought.” During the podcast, Cutler called Steele “the Candace Owens of ESPN,” referring to the Black author and right-wing commentator who often appears on Fox News.

Steele said she “respected the crap” out of Owens for speaking her mind in the face of negative reaction from progressives in the Black community. But she added the comparison was “comical” as “there is nothing we have in common in how we handle ourselves on social media.”

COVID-19 forced Ling to pivot from immersion journalism to deep history dives, including her CNN series connecting hate against Asian Americans and more to today’s tensions.

Oct. 6, 2021

Steele’s remarks follow a major controversy at ESPN earlier this year, after a July 6 report in the New York Times revealed a private 2020 call between the network’s NBA analyst Rachel Nichols and an associate. Nichols, who is white, was heard complaining that ESPN selected Maria Taylor, who is Black, over her to host an NBA playoffs pregame show in 2020 because of Taylor’s race.

The call was made while Nichols was working inside the “bubble” in Walt Disney World in Orlando, Fla. — where the NBA held its playoffs last year during the COVID-19 pandemic — and picked up by a company video link in her hotel room. Taylor joined NBC Sports on July 21 after she was unable to come to terms on a new deal with ESPN.