ESPN declined to comment on why she has stepped back when contacted by Deadline. During a recent podcast interview with former NFL quarterback Jay Cutler, Steele criticized Disney’s Covid vaccine mandate and questioned Barack Obama’s racial self-identity.
Steele also recently tested positive for Covid, which was the prevailing reason for her being temporarily taken off the air, according to a person familiar with the situation. She is expected to return to the air sometime next week. The decision for her to be off for a week is understood to have been a mutual one.
On last week’s podcast, Steele described the company’s vaccine mandate as “sick and scary.” The Walt Disney Co. was among the first large employers to decide to require workers to be vaccinated, a move that has since been widely emulated across corporate America.
In addition to Covid, Steele on the podcast also questioned the fact that Obama identifies as Black, given the circumstances of his upbringing. “Congratulations to the President, that’s his thing,” she said. “I think that’s fascinating considering his Black dad is nowhere to be found, but his white mom and grandma raised him, but OK. You do you. I’m gonna do me.”
While she has appeared in numerous spots during her 15-year run at ESPN, Steele has recently been anchoring the mid-day edition of SportsCenter.
“At ESPN, we embrace different points of view – dialogue and discussion makes this place great,” the company said in a statement provided to Deadline. “That said, we expect that those different points of view be expressed respectfully, in a manner consistent with our values, and in line with our internal policies. We are having direct conversations with Sage and those conversations will remain private.”
Steele has also acknowledged her role in the situation. “I know my recent comments caused controversy for the company, and I apologize,” she said in a statement relayed by ESPN. “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.”
Former ESPN staffers Keith Olbermann and Jemele Hill were among those criticizing Steele’s podcast remarks on Twitter. Hill called it “clown behavior” and Olbermann said Steele’s “self-awareness continues to be zero. It’s a shame.”
In addition to her on-air duties, Steele will also step away from hosting an upcoming summit focused on women in sports, an insider told Deadline.