ESPN’s Sage Steele Gets Honest About the Lack of Support Among Women

Photo by John Lamparski/ Getty
Steele says women need to put as much effort into supporting each other as they do fighting for equality among men.

When we set out to pursue our dreams as children, the nature of our innocence often allows us to see the world as it should be rather than how it is and many times, it's for the better. ESPN sportscaster Sage Steele is one of the most recognized and respected names in sports journalism today and beyond wanting her achievements to be celebrated because of her biracial heritage or female gender, she takes unapologetic pride in the fact that she's still the same ambitious 12-year-old who set out to one day make her mark as a damn good sportscaster who knows her stuff.

We recently caught up with Sage just ahead of the 2016 NBA Finals kick off and she opened up about everything from her humble beginnings in broadcast journalism, to her most unforgettable interview, to why women need to do a better job of supporting each other, to her pick for which team will emerge victorious as the Cavs and the Warriors face off yet again for the title of 2016 NBA Champions.

Check out our interview below. 

You got your start in the journalism field back in 1995. What made you want to pursue a career in sports journalism at a time when there were hardly any women of color in field?
I mean, to be honest with you, my goal from day one was to be a sportscaster on ESPN. When I was 12 years old, I was telling people that I wanted to be a sportscaster, so I always knew this was what I wanted to do. The thing is though, I was just taught to never look at color. I’m from a biracial family, you know, my mom is white [half Irish, half Italian] and my dad is Black. So, I just have a lot of everything in my family and I feel fortunate to have that opportunity to have experienced so many different cultures growing up. Also, my dad was military so, we lived all over the world and, I don’t know, no one ever talked about or looked at color and it was actually nice. So, this whole color thing was strange to me when I moved back to the states when I was 11. To me, it was like “wait, what’s the big deal?” I just wanted to go be a sportscaster but, all of a sudden, it mattered that I was biracial. To be clear, although I consider myself biracial, I know that much of America sees me as Black and that’s completely fine too. Either way, I didn’t think of it as a biracial female or a Black female in sports, I just knew that was what I wanted to do and went to do it. It was that simple and probably naive but, I don’t know, I kind of wish more people looked at it that way! You know, even when Pan Oliver started as a sports anchor back around 1991. I was in college and saw her and I thought she was, number one, really good at her job and also really beautiful. That was why I noticed her; not because she was Black. Hopefully, that’s what people everywhere see when they see me; a woman who is pretty good at her job and knows what she’s talking about. So, although people do separate it and I get it and I am extremely proud of it because I know that there aren’t many of us, I don’t want to just be known as “the Black female sportscaster.” I do know that I’m, according to what some parents and teachers tell me, a role model and it’s so humbling for them to tell me, ‘gosh you are a role model and my daughter does know she can do it because she sees you."

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I’d venture to say most viewers likely see a balance of both a great sportscaster and one who does stand out in a good way because she’s one of only a few Black women we see in the position.
Thank you; I appreciate that and I mean, I definitely get that I stand out! For example, my hair is different. I know for a fact that there are more women (Black and white) who have curly hair on TV, it’s just that everybody straightens it and I don’t [laughs]! And now, I truly embrace my curls. I always really have, even though I was told years ago by potential employers or bosses that I ‘might want to straighten that.’ The truth of it was that I was too lazy and too cheap and then I started having kids early. I had 3 kids in less than four years when I was on NFL Beat. So, I just didn’t have time [to straighten my hair]. I’m lucky I have makeup on! So, I just owned it and I know that that makes me stand out as well because I have big, curly hair.

Equality for women in the workforce has been an ongoing topic for years. What are some challenges you’ve faced or overcome in your career journey?
Ok, you might not like my answer on this [laughs]. There have been several challenges along the way. However, I kind of feel like, I knew what I was getting into, to an extent. My goal was to cover the NFL and the NBA and the MLB, which happen to be male-dominated sports. So, when I’m a female and focusing on male-dominated sports and I’m going into a locker room full of men, can I really be surprised when I feel a little bit out of place? I have had some probably inappropriate experiences but, nothing that I couldn’t handle or couldn’t learn from and even teach others. I feel like we’ve come such long way since I got my degree and graduated from college in 1995. There are women everywhere; on TV, as writers, as journalists. Just the number of jobs that are available period have quadrupled because of the Internet…it’s awesome. So, I’m not so focused on the challenges for women in particular, I just think that you’d better be tough going into this business in the first place because it’s cutthroat. I always challenged myself and thought that I had to be better than the guys and know more than the men that I worked with. Whether I did or not, who knows, who cares [laughs] but, you know what you’re getting into when you’re a woman coming into a “man’s world.” Does that mean that there aren’t things happening that shouldn’t happen? Of course there are. But I haven’t personally experienced anything terrible.  The worst part, for me, honestly, has been the lack of support from other women.

Wow….
It’s true. It’s like, when we are in this male-dominated industry and we know it and there’s two of us in this locker rom of probably 18 or 20 press total….why aren’t we looking out for each other? I mean, that wasn’t the whole of it, I did have some really great experiences with other women when I worked in Tampa but, just in general. And then even when I got to ESPN, again, I was so disappointed in the way women treated other women and the lack of support. There just aren’t that many jobs available at these networks and we’re all competitive but, we’re all under contract. So, there’s room for all of us or they wouldn’t have signed us! It’s great to be competitive, but when you are such a minority as with women in the industry and in any industry, why aren’t you looking out for each other? Especially when you become a mother and you’re trying to balance working in this “man's world” as a mother. I’m pregnant in locker rooms and on NFL sidelines…big old’ belly…practically slept in my suitcase…just all over the place. And I’m not complaining to say that I should’ve receive special treatment or whatever but, the point is, where’s the support system? Women can complain all they want about how they’re treated by the men, and many times the complaints are legitimate, but, we don’t even take care of each other. And to me, that’s the bigger thing. We talk about the glass ceiling and all of that and we are overlooking the most basic thing, which is each other. They’re fighting great fights everywhere for women in the workforce and I am so for it, but at the end of the day, we need to look at ourselves in the mirror. And that has been more disappointing to me more so than how some of the men have treated me. 

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Has there been anyone in particular in the field that you’ve looked up to over the years?
Robin Roberts is always at the top of the list. I don’t know her that well, but I just so respected the job she did and how she did it. And then when I got to ESPN and got to hear about who she was as a person from other people, that just made me fall in love with her even more. Honestly, there just weren’t that many women in the field in general. So, she’s someone I have always looked up to. She was always extremely supportive of me several years ago and even before I got to ESPN. Otherwise, I mean Stuart Scott was one of my best friends and he made me tougher. I’ve always been a pleaser and trying to fix the situation, make everybody else comfortable, make it perfect. And it’s not just at work, it’s my whole life [laughs.] And Stuart was the one who always told me, ‘girl, you gotta take care of you.” Walk in there and stand tall. Don’t let them do that to you or say that to you. It’s OK to pat yourself on the back. If someone says, ‘you’re really good at your job, I love what you do,’ say thank you. Don’t say ‘oh, I don’t know…” own it. That, I carried with me literally everyday. He helped get me thought a lot of phases and on a personal level, that was how our friendship really just evolved and I miss him terribly because of that.  At the end of the day, you have to take care of yourself and pass the baton and help the next young woman or young man who aspires to be like you and it’s such a humbling position to be in.

You had the opportunity to deliver the commencement address at your alma mater Indiana University last year. What advice do you give young people looking to follow in your footsteps that you wish someone would have given you?
Well, I just wish I’d been a little tougher when I started and had thicker skin. I took everything personally. Sometimes rightfully so and sometimes not but, I was just so sensitive and I still am but, I just know how to channel it now and use it to help me rather than let it get me down. So, the advice that I would give would be to be ready in that way and have that thick skin. And also, don’t be afraid to work. I’ve worked since I was 15. When I got my first job out of college, I was making $18,200 a year and that was in 1995. I lived in Indiana and it wasn’t sports, which was my goal, but I just took a job because it was in TV and it was producing and writing and I just wanted to get my foot in the door. But then I wasn’t making enough money to pay my rent and my car insurance and my hooptie car and some stupid college credit card debt from when I wanted to go on spring break with my friends. So, $18,000 a year wasn’t doing it to pay off all of these bills. At one point when I transitioned and I was on TV during the day and waiting tables at night, people would recognize me and say, “hey, aren’t you that girl that works over at channel 22?” And I’m like, “Yep….so, how would you like your steak?”

Knowing how hard you worked to get where you are must make you appreciate the success that much more now.
Looking back, the time that I’m most proud of in my career was at the beginning when, really no one wanted me in sports. I was really green and I was totally in over my head, especially with that first job. But, I look back and I did it and I got myself out of that debt. I was waiting tables at night and it wasn’t glamorous but, I worked my tail off and I did it. And I wasn’t afraid to just WORK. And I feel like not everybody today is willing to work and willing to take that job even if it’s not perfect but, just get your butt in the door, don’t complain and learn everything you can. You can’t go wrong with that. Even if you don’t make it to your ultimate goal, you know you’ve done it the right way and you know you tried and you never want to have that regret from not trying. I’m just so glad for those early days when I had nothing but still didn’t quit. I’m thankful that my parents instilled that work ethic. 

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Who has been your most unforgettable interview so far?
Well this is probably cheesy but, I’m most thankful for the opportunity from ESPN 2 to do a piece on my dad. They knew about my dad’s athletic achievements and for Father’s Day two or three years ago, they came and said we’d love to do a feature on your father. He’s the first African-American to play varsity football at West Point and back in the '60s, especially at West Point, it was such a difficult place to be. There were NO black people. And so, they asked me to help write and produce the piece. On him. You talk about full circle! Number one, it’s my daddy [laughs]. I’m 43 and I still call him that. And Number 2, he’s the one who instilled the sports obsession in me. He was my first mentor with sports. So, to do that on ESPN all these years later was amazing and thanks to technology, it’s something that will live forever. My kids got to see it live and every time I watch it, I tear up. So, I could name all of the amazing, famous people I’ve interviewed over the years but, at the end of the day, that segment with my dad was my favorite piece because without him, I would have never even gotten to this position and it’s such a blessing to have been able to do that. 

What’s your guilty pleasure or favorite thing to do when you’re not working?
My Pandora is my guilty pleasure! Classic Hip Hop is my favorite channel. I have Snoop Dogg radio, I have my Adele radio, I have Ed Sheeran radio, I have Black Eyed Peas, I have Disney Songs because I have kids and then I have specifically, a Dr. Dre and Snoop Dog radio. So, basically all of the Hip Hop music from the early to mid '90s when I was in college. 

Ok, you know we have to ask….who’s your pick to win it all this year for the NBA Finals?
It’s the hardest pick yet in my career because I think they’re both excellent. First of all, I’m so excited that it’s a rematch. I LOVE the Oklahoma City Thunder but I admit to wanting a Cavs-Warriors rematch with everyone healthy on both teams and that’s what we’re getting. So, that being said, I think the difference is going to simply be home court advantage. And that means, the Warriors win in 7. If there’s a game 7, it’s in Oakland and the Warriors are so tough to beat there. But, I will say, the Cavs are playing at whole new level right now, one that we haven’t seen from them. They like each other. A year ago, even if everybody had been healthy, you didn’t get the sense that they liked each other. And that’s fine, it takes time. You have to figure it out. But now, they like each other, they respect each other and that should scare Warriors fans. But, the Warriors have liked each other from day one and there’s no one really, really selfish on that team which is very unique. So, yeah I’m gonna be fascinated by this match up. 

You can catch Sage Steele on site for each 2016 NBA Finals games hosting NBA Countdown alongside analysts Jalen Rose and Doug Collins.

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