Let’s talk about sympathy: who has it, who deserves it, and who seems pathologically incapable of showing some. In the wake of President Trump’s unpopular inauguration, his wife Melania enjoyed a public welling of sympathy. A nation of tweeters watched, unexpectedly moved, as the former model and current first lady struggled to maintain an air of affection for her charred husband. We witnessed Trump’s callous indifference, the sort of chilly demeanor that a tabloid’s body-language expert would call a sure sign of marital distress. We replayed the inauguration clips over and over again and wondered what Melania was thinking, with her dead eyes and her body uncomfortably rigid in powder blue. At Women’s Marches all over the country, anti-Trump protesters held up signs imploring the president to #FreeMelania (and Tiffany too, while you’re at it). But while the imagined imprisonment of Melania Trump struck a chord, backlash swiftly demanded that we redirect our sympathies in more appropriate directions. After all, Melania Trump is an enabler of her husband’s policies and his actions. She may not speak often, but when she does, it’s to defend birtherism or regurgitate a “locker room talk” sound bite.
Over the weekend, SportsCenter on the Road host Sage Steele provided another textbook example of misdirected sympathy.
In the wake of Trump’s “Muslim ban,” countless Americans mourned the desecration of constitutional values and showed up in solidarity with detainees. Citizens sympathized with divided families, heartbroken refugees, and confused green card holders. Meanwhile, Sage Steele sympathized with Sage Steele for being delayed by protesters and having to wait seven hours for the next flight. Drawing from my limited bag of sports metaphors, it’s safe to say that Steele really dropped the ball on this one.
In a Sunday Instagram post, the sportscaster shared a picture of the momentous protests at LAX. So far, so good. Unfortunately, Steele wasn’t “supporting civil disobedience in solidarity” so much as she was “really trying to get to the Super Bowl.” Or, as she wrote, “so THIS is why thousands of us dragged luggage nearly 2 miles to get to LAX, but still missed our flights.” Before you accuse Sage Steele of being a heartless, ill-informed dragon lady, note that the anchor did spice her salt with a sprinkle of self-awareness. “Fortunately, a 7 hour wait for the next flight to Houston won’t affect me that much,” she continued, “but my heart sank for the elderly and parents with small children who did their best to walk all that way but had no chance of making their flights…it saddened me to see the joy on their faces knowing that they were successful in disrupting so many people’s travel plans.” Yes, Sage Steele—these protesting Grinches showed up in the thousands in the hopes of watching a toddler cry over a delayed trip to Disney World. Exercising their rights to protest an inhumane executive order was just the icing on the cake.
The best part of this Instagram is how outrageously petty it is. Sure, Steele pretends like she’s going off for the kids—but if that was really the case, why would she feel the need to mention her own seven-hour wait, or emphasize that it didn’t affect her that much? At airports across the country, detainees were allegedly halted for up to 20 hours, some denied food and legal counsel. Meanwhile, Sage Steele is out here acting like she deserves a medal for spending seven hours on airport Wi-Fi in the LAX food court.
In addition to incurring the wrath of the internet, Steele quickly came under fire from her own colleagues. Fellow ESPN employee Dan Le Batard addressed Steele’s Instagram post on his Monday morning radio show. Le Batard called the social media screed “the height of privilege” explaining that, “I, as the son of exiles, look at this and I’m like what the hell are you talking about [that] your travel plans were affected? What are you talking about?”
Unfortunately for Steele, this isn’t the first time she’s been accused of spewing offensive nonsense. Apparently, in the world of sport, the biracial anchor is somewhat infamous for her “All Lives Matter”-style opinions. As recently as November, Steele made headlines when she criticized Tampa Bay Buccaneers wide receiver Mike Evans for kneeling during the national anthem in protest of the election of Donald Trump. Steele, whose father was the first African-American man to play varsity football at West Point, offered up her Twitter critique two days after Veterans Day. “Hey @MikeEvans13_ look up definition of the word DEMOCRACY & remember this pic while kneeling/exercising your right to protest #perspective,” she wrote, sharing a picture of a man kneeling in front of a soldier’s tombstone at Arlington National Cemetery.
Steele had previously told The Washington Post that, “I just think there are other ways to express yourself.” She continued, “No matter what, you stand when the national anthem is being sung, the Pledge of Allegiance, no matter what it is. You stand up, you put your hand on your heart, you don’t talk, you take your hat off and you [show] respect, period. I have no patience for anything less, but I respect his right to do what he wants. I just don’t respect what he’s doing...My military ties run deep and I just think that we can come up with better ways to express our views.”
The plot quickly thickened when Miko Grimes, the wife of Evans’s teammate Brent Grimes, clapped back to Steele’s clapback. The former radio talk show host turned controversial partner unleashed a characteristically coarse tweetstorm, writing, “This stupid b—- thinks national anthem sitting equals hatred for military! U ignorant little b—-! F— sage and @kateupton @sagesteele...Black b—–s get white privilege then forget SOLDIERS FOUGHT FOR EVERYONE’S RIGHTS, NOT JUST THE RIGHTS YOU CARE ABOUT! @sagesteele.” Three days later, Steele responded to her quickly growing army of detractors with a lengthy (777 words, to be exact) Facebook post titled “DIVERSITY.” In it, she opined that, “Instead of praising or uplifting each other, way too many people of color choose to tear down, mock and spew hatred at other blacks who feel differently, think differently, or make decisions that are different from theirs.”
Steele described personal attacks on her family, writing, “Instead of giving me those all-knowing looks of disgust and calling me a sell-out when you see pictures of me with my white husband, or see me with my very light-skinned bi-racial children, shouldn’t you be praising that ‘white boy’ from Indiana who followed his color-blind heart and married into a bi-racial culture completely different from his own, to help create a beautiful, color-blind family? Apparently not.” She continued, “You don’t get a hall-pass just because you’re a minority. Racism is racism, no matter what color your skin is,” concluding, “I pray that we can all begin to have more open-minded, non-judgmental, healthy conversations to ensure that diversity applies to ALL Americans, all of the time.”
Naturally, this post didn’t exactly assuage Steele’s opponents, who argued that the woman preaching compassion seemed all too comfortable criticizing and judging African-American athletes. In the words of Blavity’s LaVita Tuff, who wrote an open letter to the sportscaster, “you are the epitome of ‘black on black crime is the problem.’ You are the walking poster child for ‘All Lives Matter.’ You would be the token person they book on CNN to tell black people we need to fix us before we try fixing the police departments who use black people for target practice.” Meanwhile Breitbart, the actual poster site for “All Lives Matter,” published Steele’s full status, praising her “bold stand.”
As one of a woefully small number of successful women in her field, not to mention women of color, Steele deserves some props. Unfortunately, her accomplishments also include such uncomfortable moments as when she silenced Arcade Fire’s Win Butler after the NBA’s Celebrity Game last February.
When Butler tried to talk about the U.S. elections, Steele quickly interjected that, “We’re talking about celebrity stuff, not politics.” NewsBusters gleefully praised the reporter, on the basis that someone was “stopped from spouting liberal politics and attacking America on ESPN’s airwaves.” Truly, the bravest thing a journalist can do is muzzle dissent.
Interestingly, Steele was far more amenable when UFC fighter Chael Sonnen interrupted their on-air conversation in 2013 to ask if he could touch the host’s hair. When some viewers expressed discomfort at the arguably racist encounter, Steele tweeted, “Hair? I couldn’t care less!”
So Sage Steele isn’t easily offended—just when democracy in action threatens to interrupt her travel plans.