In January of 2016, ESPN circulated an inter-office memo in which they insisted verbal discipline was the new normal. Avoid the subject of Donald Trump, Bernie Sanders and Hilary Clinton. Keep the discourse sports related. It was, seemingly, at odds with the ESPN narrative of free expression without boundaries. By default, that one memo peeled back the anxiety corporate ESPN was suddenly faced with. They didn’t want to die on the hill. The vitriol, divisiveness, resistance and anger of the election had a trickle down effect that was bad for business if ESPN’s customers associated the network with a particular candidate or campaign.
“2016 is an election year. We should refrain from political editorializing, personal attacks or “drive by” comments regarding the candidates and their campaigns (including but not limited to on platforms such as Twitter or other social media).” ESPN interoffice memo.
Nevertheless, the dichotomy was a stunning change for the network that prided itself on the guilty marriage of subjectivity and truth. In the last decade, ESPN has fetishized opinion of all kinds which was both productive and profitable, regardless of the journalistic contrast or the shouting that pierced eardrums. Now, they were in retreat, begging to be saved. So they promoted submissiveness from their employees who had been used to freedom of expression.
Eight months after this edict of theirs, Colin Kapernick made his national anthem crusade a debatable point on race, politics, loyalty, nationalism and duty. Kapernick’s peers were supportive or they thought he was garbage, hardly any middle ground or nuance or subtlety to pull back the layers that enraged Kapernick in the first place. ESPN was in the middle of the social landscape of Kapernick love and hate. Their analysts took sides, for or against, reeking in passion and much of it was low hanging fruit. Commentary was not just applauded but required, seemingly, from everyone, an irony on principle. Kapernick politics were acceptable. However, Trump was still off the table. And so ESPN was not being transparent on the surface while being extremely complicit in the marrow. With Kapernick, it was open warfare. In all things race and politics and Trump vs. Clinton, it was keep it to yourself.
Before Donald Trump secured the presidential nomination, ESPN fired former pitcher and MLB analyst Curt Schilling. An employee for six years, Schilling’s crime was a social media post he probably thought was funny that wasn’t. He mocked the opponents of the North Carolina law that prevents transgender people from using the bathroom of their gender. Schilling followed the tasteless post with commentary and that was the final straw. “A man is a man no matter what they call themselves. I don’t care what they are, who they sleep with, men’s room was designed for the penis, women’s not so much. Now you need laws telling us differently. Pathetic.”
ESPN responded by saying they were an inclusive company and cut ties with the controversial Schilling.
That was baseball. On the NBA side of things, Sage Steele wasn’t fired like Curt Schilling was but she was taken off her prime gig at NBA Countdown because of her affection for social commentary, conservative leaning, exemplified by her outrage when faced with protesters of the Trump Immigration Ban.
It happened less than one week into his presidency, President Trump banned citizens from seven Muslim countries from entering the United States, an order that would be halted by the courts. Spontaneous protests erupted in airports, particularly in New York and Los Angeles.
Los Angeles was where Sage Steele was trying to leave. She was on her way for a work assignment in Houston. She had a game to cover for ESPN but the massive amount of human bodies protesting at LAX made it impossible to make her flight. Sage then wrote on Instagram.
“So this is why thousands of us dragged luggage nearly two miles to get to LAX but still missed our flight. I love witnessing people exercising their right to protest! But it saddened me to see the joy on their faces knowing that they were successful in disrupting so many people’s travel plans. Yes, immigrants were affected by this as well. Brilliant.”
She seemed to misunderstand the purpose of a protest, at least in theory. It is to be disruptive in the grandest way possible. To create stress and anxiety. Protest definitions aside, more glaring was her own victimhood, absent empathy. The targets of the ban itself who now faced disruption far greater than hers were just props to her discomfort and inconvenience. As an admission, it seemed stunning coming from a woman of color and to many, it was a tone deaf moment.
When she was confronted on social media, she defended her words by saying, “it’s my opinion.” A more honest description would have been if she wrote, “it is my privilege to be exclusive.”
There were other Sage Steele moments as well that put her conservative views up front and center in the social media talking points world which was in violation of the ESPN shut up about politics ethic. Had her views been left leaning would she have been demoted? Perhaps, but maybe not. The one thing she was allowed to talk about because it upped ESPN’s ratings was Colin Kapernick. Of course she was critical and it made all the sense in the world. Sage Steele was raised in a military family. Her father, Gary Steele, was the first African American to play varsity football at West Point.
ESPN is like everyone else these days, the tail is wagging the dog.
“Given the intense interest in the most recent presidential election and the fact subsequent political and social discussions often intersected with the sports world, we found it to be an appropriate time to review our guidelines. ” Patrick Stiegman, ESPN global digital content.
Sage Steele has been moved to SportsCenter and will be replaced by Michelle Beadle who already hosts the Friday version of NBA Countdown.
photo via llananba