The latest ESPN controversy centers around SportsCenter anchor Sage Steele, who has now lodged complaints about how she was not chosen for the network’s June 24 special “Time for Change: We Won’t be Defeated.” That special, presented by The Undefeated, (ESPN’s recently-expanded platform covering race, culture and sports) was billed as “exploring Black athletes’ experiences with injustice,” and it was hosted by SportsCenter anchors Elle Duncan, Michael Eaves and Jay Harris and college football reporter/studio host Maria Taylor. Joe Flint of The Wall Street Journal reported Tuesday that Steele (pictured above) claims Duncan and Eaves kept her from participating in this show, and that she complained to ESPN president Jimmy Pitaro about this. Here are some key lines from his piece:
ESPN anchor Sage Steele has told management she believes she was excluded from a special the network aired on race last month because she wasn’t considered by certain Black colleagues to be an authentic voice for the Black community, a person familiar with the matter said.
Ms. Steele, one of the network’s most prominent on-air personalities, voiced her concerns to ESPN President Jimmy Pitaro in early June, saying the incident showed the network has a divisive work environment, the person said.
Ms. Steele said colleagues told her she was considered for the special by the executive in charge, Michael Fountain, until two of the other on-air personalities involved, Elle Duncan and Michael Eaves, complained, saying Ms. Steele wouldn’t be accepted by what they considered the Black community, according to the person familiar with her account to management.
This has led to a lot of statements from a lot of people. To start with, ESPN disputes the logic here from “the person familiar with the matter,” with Flint’s piece including that “An ESPN spokesman denied that Ms. Steele wasn’t invited to participate in the special because of a campaign by colleagues to undermine her or that her views played any role in Mr. Fountain’s decisions.” And Kevin Merida, the ESPN senior vice president and editor in chief of The Undefeated (who was heavily quoted in ESPN’s release about this special) told Flint “At The Undefeated, we don’t have litmus tests for Blackness. ESPN has a tremendous range of Black voices, and we’ve been honored to work with many of them. …We had already talked to Sage a number of times about working together, and look forward to that opportunity.” Meanwhile, Eaves and Duncan offered a joint statement to Flint:
“We wish we had more than an hour to include more of the many strong voices we have at ESPN; however, we are hopeful that this doesn’t distract from the important message conveyed that night.”
And Steele offered her own statement to Flint:
“I found it sad for all of us that any human being should be allowed to define someone’s ‘Blackness.’ Growing up biracial in America with a Black father and a white mother, I have felt the inequities that many, if not all Black and biracial people have felt—being called a monkey, the ‘n’ word, having ape sounds made as I walked by—words and actions that all of us know sting forever. Most importantly, trying to define who is and isn’t Black enough goes against everything we are fighting for in this country, and only creates more of a divide.”
The exact behind-the-scenes events that led to Steele not being involved in this particular special are not clear. Flint’s report is from “a person familiar with the matter,” and it only includes the reasons Steele “believes she was excluded,” with an ESPN spokesman denying those reasons. And there are other possible reasons not to feature Steele on this special. For one, that special would end up going with four anchors, which is a lot for any program, and it certainly didn’t include all of ESPN’s Black employees.
Beyond that, this special was billed as “part of The Undefeated’s ongoing, unprecedented coverage of the protests and social justice reform efforts that have come to the forefront following the killings of Ahmaud Arbery, Breonna Taylor, George Floyd and Rayshard Brooks.” And Steele has made a lot of headlines over the years for her criticisms of various protests, from blasting then-Tampa Bay Buccaneers wide receiver Mike Evans in 2016 for his protest during the national anthem to complaining about airport protests against an executive order banning immigrants from particular countries in 2017. Steele has also complained about the backlash she received for those criticisms.
So Steele is far from an uncontroversial figure, especially for a special focused on popular protests. Whether she should have been picked for this special is ultimately a decision for ESPN management figures like Fountain, though. And while the “person familiar with the situation” relayed Steele’s belief that she wasn’t chosen because of her colleagues’ thoughts about her, ESPN has denied that it played out that way. Perhaps Steele’s belief (or what this source relayed as her belief) is in fact accurate, or perhaps it isn’t. It’s certainly not an undisputed narrative.
It’s far from assured that any of this ultimately leads to anything. Even if you buy the account from the “person familiar with the situation” that Steele believes it was ESPN colleagues who kept her off this special (and it’s notable that Steele doesn’t explicitly say that in the statement from her Flint quotes, and that the “person familiar with the situation” is not named), there have been countless feuds between ESPN colleagues over the years, and most of them have meant very little. And the main ESPN-on-ESPN criticism the network tends to concern itself with is when that criticism is aired publicly (such as Bill Simmons blasting First Take while he was still under the ESPN umbrella). But thanks to the “person familiar with this situation,” this internal fight (or at least one person’s interpretation of it) has gone quite public.