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Sage Steele: People don’t watch ‘SportsCenter’ to hear about Charlottesville

(Courtesy ESPN)
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Sage Steele has made clear for weeks that her vision of the revamped morning “SportsCenter” she will co-host starting next week will be heavy on highlights; “people I talk to want more of that,” she said this spring.

This at least brings to mind a popular complaint that you’ve no doubt heard, especially from political conservatives: That ESPN has gotten away from sports and is too immersed in contentious and polarizing social and political issues.

Like every single modern debate, this one seems immediately to break along partisan lines, and to inflame emotions into a tumescent blob of rage, whose only tangible result seems to be that you crazy people will now click on sports links with headlines like “ESPN president: Robert Lee was taken off U-Va. broadcast with ‘good intentions’ “ (and “Sage Steele: People don’t watch SportsCenter to hear about Charlottesville”) rather than sports links with headlines like “Homers keep coming against Shawn Kelley in Nats’ 6-1 loss to Astros.” I mean, be the change you wish to see in the world, people.

Anyhow, during her media tour to promote this revamped program, Steele has hinted at this stick-to-sports stance, telling the New York Post that “people come to us for their sports,” and that “for the most part, I think we leave [social and political issues] to the news networks.”

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“Not everybody agrees with me on that, not everybody I work with agrees with me,” she said. “That’s my personal opinion, that [sports are] where we go to escape.”

This position will win her acclamation in some circles, as will her appearance on Dan Patrick’s show Thursday, where she suggested that her vision of “SportsCenter” involves a return to the format’s shape during Patrick and Olbermann glory days. At some point, they got to discussing Colin Kaepernick, whose protests and subsequent unemployment, Patrick suggested, have been over-covered by sports media.

“Trust me, I have a problem with it,” Steele said of the coverage. “I do not look forward to discussing this on ‘SportsCenter,’ I really don’t. And we are going to be doing things a little bit differently. I mean, on NFL Mondays, you will see every highlights from every game played on Sunday. Every one. Doesn’t mean they’re all going to be two minutes, but we’re getting back to that, to more sports — I know, God forbid. And not that we haven’t done it on other shows, but that was a key for me. So these discussions need to be had, and there are crossover topics like this that will be discussed. But [I’ll be] talking to Herm Edwards, and [guests like that] don’t want to talk about it all that time, either, because it is what it is. Is there news on it? No, so move on.”

Patrick brought up the aforementioned Robert Lee story, and a past episode when he was told at ESPN not to discuss the controversial “Playmakers” series, and he then raised the possibility of Steele tackling the Lee story on “SportsCenter,” about which she demurred.

“Here’s the thing, when I turn on ‘SportsCenter,’ that’s not what I want to hear,” she said. “As a viewer, I want to see the highlights, I want to hear from Rich Hill. That’s what I want as a viewer, and that’s what I believe most viewers want when they turn to ESPN, is less of this.”

She differentiated her show from “First Take” — “a talk show where you talk about those things and you debate about those things,” she called it. ” ‘SportsCenter,’ that’s not what it has ever been.” Then she talked about how she used to grow tired of discussing Tim Tebow every day.

“I will always go back to why did people turn us on when Dan Patrick and Keith Olbermann were hosting, and why are they turning us on now?” she said. “And in my opinion, it’s not to hear about Charlottesville. … We will have some opinions, the three of us, but I don’t believe it’s about us. It’s about the games, it’s about the highlights. Let’s show some standings. Let’s talk about what’s coming up tonight. I’m just old, I guess, old-school.”

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There is an audience for that language, at least. “Perhaps there is hope yet for ESPN, ‘SportsCenter,’ ” wrote one person who heard her appearance.

Of course, having said all that, Steele did offer her view on Kaepernick’s protests and subsequent unemployment during the podcast, and with all due respect, it was perhaps the most interesting part of the segment. Certainly, it was grabbier than her thoughts on Rich Hill, had she offered them. Because as is so often the case, I watched the Rich Hill perfect-game-turned-extra-inning-loss myself, and nothing about the experience inflamed my emotions into a tumescent blob of rage, whereas anyone talking honestly about Kaepernick has a very good chance of causing some inflammation.

That’s why I’m writing about this, and why you’re reading this, if you’re still here. Maybe you don’t feel good about yourself afterward, but there’s a tingle involved.

“I just disagree with the whole premise of the issue that people have,” Steele said of Kaepernick’s unemployment. Ravens owner “Steve Bisciotti, along with the other 31 owners in this league, they run a business,” she said, “and they have a right to make the decision that they believe is best for their business, just like Colin Kaepernick has the right to express his opinion and do what’s best for him, for his brand, for his career. There’s repercussions to both. I have no problem with what Steve Bisciotti did and I would have no problem if Steve Bisciotti brought him in [to the Ravens]. How much of a problem did we have with Jerry Jones, with Greg Hardy over the last couple of years?”

(Steele’s brother, Chad Steele, is the vice president of public relations for the Ravens.)

“You know, people pick and choose what they want to freak out about,” Steele went on, in comments that were picked up by Breitbart. “New York City yesterday,” she said, referencing the protests concerning Kaepernick. “I mean, go for it, that is your right. I think it’s comical. I think Colin Kaepernick, he would still be on the Niners if he were that good. Other teams would have picked him up. People need talent. There’s no question about that, right? If he were that good, someone would have picked him up.

“Or maybe he is, and these team owners, the PR staffs say ‘is it worth it?’ Because the fallout that comes with it — fans, suite luxury box holders — there’s a lot of money involved in that. And you have to consider all those things as a business owner. That is his right, to say we don’t want to really go there. And by the way, Ray Lewis back in ’01, 2000, completely different time. More serious, of course — he was never convicted of that, and people forget that. Ray Rice, obviously things worked themselves out, as they should have, in my opinion. But we pick and choose, and I think it’s fascinating that oh this is a big deal, and this is not. They are business owners; they have a right.”

Yeah, that’s the stuff. You’re feeling something now, right? Possibly rage at me for having you read all that, but rage is an emotion.

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