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ESPN’s Sage Steele apologizes for controversial comments about Obama’s racial identity and vaccine mandates

By Leah Asmelash, CNN

ESPN “SportsCenter” anchor Sage Steele has apologized after making controversial statements about vaccine mandates, female sports reporters and former President Barack Obama’s racial identity.

Steele has been removed from air following comments made during a September 29 podcast episode of “Uncut With Jay Cutler.”

In a statement to CNN, Steele said: “I know my recent comments created controversy for the company, and I apologize. 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.”

While recording the podcast hosted by the former NFL quarterback, Steele made multiple comments that left many in sports media scratching their heads. While talking about ESPN’s company vaccine mandate, Steele said she respects an individual’s decision to get the Covid-19 vaccine “but to mandate it is sick, and it’s scary to me.”

She also spoke to Cutler about her identity as a mixed-race woman, questioning Obama’s decision to identify as Black on the census.

“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 also made comments about female sports reporters and sexual harassment, saying that women need to “be responsible” and it “isn’t just on players and athletes and coaches to act a certain way.”

“I’ve had talks with young women … they’re like ‘Oh, would you look at my tape, would do this,’ and I’ve said listen, I would love to. But the way you present yourself is not something I want to be associated with,” she told Cutler, who nodded. “So when you dress like that, I’m not saying you deserve the gross comments, but you know what you’re doing when you’re putting that outfit on, too.”

In an interview with CNN’s Brianna Keilar on New Day Wednesday, former ESPN host Cari Champion, who currently co-hosts “Cari & Jemele Won’t Stick to Sports,” said many young brown girls in the industry, including herself, had looked up to Steele. To hear her make anti-Black comments and demean women, she said, was disappointing.

“(Steele’s comments) implied so many things that were hurtful,” said Champion, who stated that she has worked with Steele in the past. “And it also shows that there’s a lack of an awareness on her part.”

Regarding her comments about women reporters specifically, Champion said that mentality, especially in a male-dominated business like sports broadcasting, only pushes women “further down.”

“(Steele) thinks that she has taken the moral high ground, and quite frankly all she’s done is separated herself and put a division between women in a business that already puts a division between us,” Champion said. “It makes it hard for us to get along because we feel like we have to compete. And it’s so disappointing.”

ESPN is having private discussions with Steele, a spokesperson for the network said in a statement.

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

Steele’s comments come just over a month after the network removed another well-known host, Rachel Nichols, from her coverage of the NBA and canceled her show “The Jump,” after the New York Times reported in July comments that she made about another NBA analyst, Maria Taylor during a private conversation in 2020.

According to the Times’ report, Nichols, who is White, said Taylor, who is Black, was chosen to lead NBA Finals coverage due to the company’s diversity efforts.

Nichols later apologized on air.

A previous version of this story incorrectly described Steele’s removal from air as a suspension on second reference. It has been corrected.

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