Weirdly enough, the strangest story in sports media Tuesday is about an event that’s almost a full year away. That would be the 2020 Masters, with Sports By Brooks editor Brooks Melchior (who started tweeting and writing again last fall after tweeting for the first time in almost five years in September and appearing on Adam Schefter’s podcast in October) writing a “ESPN OBEYS MASTERS: PLANS TO BAN PIONEERING BLACK ANCHOR” story claiming that Augusta National officials had asked ESPN to drop Sage Steele (who started covering the Masters in 2017, and anchored SportsCenter segments from there this year) from their 2020 Masters coverage following some mildly-critical comments she made about the club’s history to The Indianapolis Star earlier this month, and that ESPN had agreed.
Meanwhile, ESPN PR denied that in stronger-than-usual terms in a statement to Ryan Glasspiegel of The Big Lead:
“All aspects of this report are entirely and completely false. We have not been asked by anyone to remove Sage from future coverage.”
Glasspiegel also quotes ESPN vice-president (communications) Josh Krulewitz calling Melchior’s story “completely untrue.” Meanwhile, here’s exactly what Melchior wrote:
EXCLUSIVE: SportsbyBrooks.com has learned that ESPN management plans to bar a pioneering African-American female anchor from hosting the network’s Masters golf tournament coverage in Augusta, Georgia, in 2020.
Multiple sources tell SportsbyBrooks.com that officials at the Augusta National Golf Club, which hosts the annual Masters tournament, has demanded that ESPN drop African-American Sage Steele from hosting its on-air coverage at the Augusta golf club.
Last week the INDIANAPOLIS STAR reported that Steele, who has covered The Masters since 2017 for ESPN, was, “believed to be the first black woman to cover the Masters.”
Augusta National’s demand to remove Steele from future ESPN Masters broadcasts as a host in Augusta was due, SportsbyBrooks.com has learned, to remarks she reportedly made to the Star last week.
In the article, Steele, whose father Gary is the first African-American to play varsity football for the United States Military Academy at West Point and is featured with his daughter in a documentary that can currently be seen on ESPN.com, noted of Augusta National’s exclusionary membership policies, “It isn’t the prettiest history, for sure, and that is putting it very, very kindly.“
Melchior then added this update at the end of his piece:
When contacted by SportsbyBrooks.com and asked if Sage Steele would serve in the same on-air capacity for ESPN in Augusta for The Masters in 2020 as she did in 2019, an ESPN spokesman declined comment.
And Krulewitz then responded to that update on Twitter:
Your story inaccurately said: "ESPN OBEYS MASTERS: PLANS TO BAN PIONEERING BLACK ANCHOR"….our statement to you in response was: “All aspects of this report are entirely and completely false. We have not been asked by anyone to remove Sage from future coverage." https://t.co/Nm7px71ucf
— Josh Krulewitz (@jksports) April 23, 2019
There’s a lot to dig through here, but the first thing to discuss is the timing, especially as it comes to that update from Melchior. Yes, ESPN was unwilling to publicly say that Steele would “serve in the same on-air capacity” next year, but that’s not that unusual; their coverage plans for anything usually aren’t finalized this far out, and certainly not publicly. And that’s part of what makes running this story now seem strange; Melchior writes he’s learned “ESPN management plans to bar” Steele following that alleged request from Augusta National officials, but it would seem unusual for ESPN management to be making any final decisions on 2020 Masters coverage right now. And, even if they had “planned to bar” Steele, they might well reverse that move in the wake of this public discussion, which would then make Melchior’s story look inaccurate even if it wasn’t.
The even more significant element here may be how much of this ESPN is disputing, though. “All aspects of this report are entirely and completely false” is a bolder statement than normal, and it’s also interesting that they spell out that they were never even “asked by anyone to remove Sage from future coverage.” That’s a pretty big statement. And it at first implies a binary answer; either Melchior’s “multiple sources” are correct that Augusta officials “demanded” Steele’s removal, or ESPN’s statement that they were “not asked by anyone to remove Sage from future coverage” is correct.
And, on that front, it’s important to remember that ESPN is a giant company with an estimated 7,850 employees (as of November 2017), and part of an even larger company in Disney (an estimated 201,000 employees). Only a few people at ESPN are in a place to make decisions on who’s covering the 2020 Masters, but “we have not been asked by anyone” states that no one at Augusta National asked any of those decision-makers to have Steele removed from coverage.
This is interesting considering that it’s Augusta National, that the officials there are very well-connected, and that they’ve had a lot of influence over how the Masters is covered. That’s included them banning specific commentators (like Gary McCord in 1994). And it certainly wouldn’t be all that surprising if Augusta National chairman Fred Ridley had the ability to directly call a key ESPN or Disney executive and express some suggestions about 2020 coverage, maybe including which commentators they liked and didn’t like. And it’s worth wondering if the executive in question might decide to act on those suggestions, and also if they would mention any such conversation to the ESPN PR department.
But another possibility to consider is that maybe there is a little wiggle room in that statement. “Not asked by anyone to remove Sage from future coverage” sounds at first like a denial there were any concerns expressed about Steele, but it can be more literally read as “no one specifically asked us to remove Sage Steele.” It’s possible to envision a conversation that saw someone from Augusta National mention something on a post-event call of “We didn’t really love what Sage Steele said about us” without any specific demand for action, and to imagine ESPN executives then deciding to make a change to preserve a good relationship with the Masters. That’s not technically Augusta asking to remove Steele, so the statement still would hold up (and Melchior’s “demanded” would be slightly off, but so would the “entirely and completely false” in ESPN’s statement), but the net effect would be similar. (Of course, it’s also possible that there really wasn’t any sort of conversation here, and that Melchior’s report is as “entirely and completely false” as Krulewitz claims.)
All in all, this puts everyone involved in quite the situation. If ESPN had thought about removing Steele from 2020 Masters coverage, they now may be rethinking that. If they hadn’t considered it one way or the other, they now have an extra factor to consider. And while ESPN’s statement here indicates they’re certainly not going to say they removed Steele thanks to pressure from Augusta National, as Melchior noted in his tweet, they also haven’t confirmed that she’ll return to Masters coverage in 2020. Perhaps Steele will wind up on the coverage of the 2020 event, or maybe she won’t (maybe with a line about her focusing on other projects at that time). At any rate, “whether Sage Steele is involved with ESPN’s 2020 Masters coverage” is now a storyline worth much more attention than it would have been without any reports of outside pressure.