Courage: The Sage the Church Needs

Star ESPN sportscaster Sage Steele picked an unwinnable fight against a leviathan—and won. But she died, too. Her way is one the Church must follow.

September 11, 1998, was an ordinary night. I stood among a gathering of baseball beat writers and radio and television reporters awaiting entrance into the Tampa Bay Devil Rays Major League Baseball clubhouse. In a minute or two, we would pile into a room full of players, get quotes, and speak briefly with Manager Larry Rothschild. Thereafter, we’d rush back to the press box to make deadline for tomorrow’s newspaper.

It was those few minutes outside of the clubhouse that I cannot forget. In that white cinderblock hallway in the underbelly of Tropicana Field, I wasn’t considering my story lead for the Rays 3-2 win over the Texas Rangers, I was focused on something that felt like a chlorine gas covering me. It was a slow-moving wave I had allowed into me. It was cowardice, and although I felt it pummel and choke me, I stood there, quiet and still.

The clubhouse doors finally opened. In a blur, I grabbed some quotes, raced back upstairs, wrote my story, packed up, and drove west beneath moonlight to my tiny gulf-side home on St. Pete Beach, where I repeatedly damned myself with a single word: coward.

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At the stadium earlier that afternoon, a reporter and coworker, Brett McMurphy (if memory serves), disseminated copies of the Starr Report released earlier that morning. By the fourth inning, all of press row knew of what Bill Clinton did to an intern in the Oval Office. Every so often, for nine innings, a reporter’s voice would chirp up: Page 11, six paragraphs down. Unbelievable. The Starr Report left little to the imagination of Clinton’s carnality and moral lawlessness.

Twenty-five years of space and time prevents recapturing conversations, but as I stood outside the clubhouse, I recall every reporter coming to the defense of Clinton, excusing his behavior as a release from Hillary. I recall one reporter suggesting the most powerful man in the world was entitled to affairs. All presidents cheat. It went on. And there I stood, noiseless, feeling the part of the Union soldier running the other way at the first musket fire. I was too cowardly to present myself as the outlier. 

One journalist wasn’t in that media scrum that night—a local television reporter named Sage Steele. I have to imagine, had she been there, she would have said something. But then again, maybe not—because Sage, too, had to scalpel out her own demons of fear and wanting to “please” in order for her to one day take on a leviathan.

It was the soul of Sage Steele I needed that night—the same iron soul, I would argue, the worldwide Catholic Church requires today but has mostly let slip away. Disappearing are the noble-hearted rescuers of souls—the Joan of Arcs, Damien the Lepers, and John the Baptists—who once happily accepted death, gruesome illnesses, and long-suffering ignominy to care for souls. Saints and holy bishops and clergy down the millennia understood that unconfronted chaos widened the door for demons to push harder. So the saints stepped in.  

This dynamic is mostly no longer the case in the worldwide Catholic Church (save Africa). That’s why she should come to know Sage Steele. 

Steele and I were twenty-somethings, cutting our teeth as sports journalists in the Tampa/St. Petersburg market in ’98. I wrote for the Tampa Tribune; Sage was a reporter for the local ABC television affiliate. We shared a few friendly conversations when producers assigned her to cover baseball at Tropicana Field. 

Some time later, I moved back to my hometown in Maryland, where I got into a different line of work and began to write books and articles related to the Faith. Sage stayed the course and became one of the most recognizable faces in the world as a perennial anchor on ESPN’s flagship show SportsCenter. For most of her sixteen-plus years at the Disney-owned corporation, she covered Super Bowls, The Masters, the NBA Finals, and World Series games. She became one of ESPN’s most lucratively-paid on-air talents.

No lover of sports didn’t know Steele, the anchor with a bright Alleluia of a smile and a deft knowledge of sports. She was poised, charming, and as insightful on air as anyone in the business. And when she was asked to go live—she became even better.

Because she was a national presence, she was often invited to share her opinions on shows like The View and various other television and radio shows and podcasts. Steele isn’t left-leaning, so she offered opinions and perspectives that often disturbed hosts like Barbara Walters, who received Steele’s opinions as seemingly spoken in a foreign language. 

In a charming sort of way, Steele became known as a sort of benevolent Abrams tank of cheerfully-spoken opposition to left-of-center groupspeak and groupthink. She spoke plainly about her disappointment with the decision Colin Kaepernick and other athletes made to kneel for the national anthem. She addressed the madness of biological males playing in female sports, and she had the temerity to encourage aspiring female journalists to choose modest outfits.

Then one day, as a guest on a podcast, she stepped onto a third rail. She disagreed with Disney’s “scary” vaccination mandates for its employees. 

“Everyone these days is concerned with what their peers are thinking, but we owe people our honest opinions,” she said. 

I used to really be concerned about everyone else’s opinions and what people thought of me—but there’s a real freedom in letting go of all that. Once you’re unafraid of being disliked for what you know is true—because you know the importance of speaking truthfully—it is very powerful…but most people, it seems, won’t let the fear go.

Steele grew up extremely shy—“a pleaser”—who felt the warmth of her ordered Catholic home, where her kindly mother, Mona, and West Point-graduate father, Gary, raised her and her siblings to never bend from God’s revealed Truth. She was led to an awareness of the importance of a lived faith, which was amplified at Sunday Mass, where she received the sacraments and came to know God as a Father, Jesus as Redeemer, and Our Lady as her maternal aid. The simple grace and order of her Catholic childhood was part of the air she breathed.

Providentially, her father asked her and her two brothers to memorize West Point’s Cadet Prayer. Gary was Army’s first black varsity football player, a star tight end, in the mid-1960s. As Sage mouthed the words as a child, she didn’t know how the prayer would one day become a killing stone in David’s pouch, an instrument to bring a giant to its knees. 

Make us to choose the harder right 
instead of the easier wrong 
and never to be content with a half truth
when the whole can be won.

It was around the time when Covid tilted the scales on worldwide normalcy that Steele felt herself becoming more alienated by sportscasting friends. Her conservative viewpoints were no longer politely received. As the strangeness pressed down, she would quietly mouth the Cadet Prayer as a gentle reminder to choose the harder right. On drives to and from work in Connecticut, she began to join the Cadet Prayer with Our Fathers and Hail Marys. The old soldier’s prayer became a poem carved indelibly into her soul. 

Sage Steele with her parents.

Online vitriol, alienation from old friends, and strange warnings from Disney executives intensified after her appearance on a podcast in which she questioned her company’s vaccine mandate and President Obama’s decision to refer to himself as black despite having a white mother and a white grandmother who raised him. (Sage, too, is a child of a white mother and black father.) She began to feel intensely disliked inside ESPN’s headquarters. And then, one day, she was suspended. Online vitriol, alienation from old friends, and strange warnings from Disney executives intensified after [Steele’s] appearance on a podcast in which she questioned her company’s vaccine mandate.Tweet This

It was then that she began to whisper the words of a different prayer. On a cool mid-October morning in 2021—before her first day back to ESPN after the suspension, her father asked Sage, her closest friend, and Mona to “huddle up” in the kitchen. Sage’s parents had driven from Pennsylvania to her home in Connecticut to support her. He understood his daughter had become a pariah and that she was scared. 

Following her suspension, Steele sued ESPN, claiming in a lawsuit that she was suspended for practicing her First Amendment rights. Steele said that because her remarks were made off the air, on a separate podcast, and on her day off, she had the right to the freedom of her viewpoints. Her peers at ESPN were already known for espousing their own left-of-center political views—on air—with no rebuke. Donald Trump’s “white supremacy,” LGBTQ+ advocacy, and even pro-abortion viewpoints were given free rein. The hypocrisy of her suspension was her catalyst for taking a stand and filing the lawsuit.

“I’ll never forget it. My dad, mom and best friend were with me. And dad says, ‘Ok, huddle up,’” Steele said. 

I was sick to my stomach. I’d lost a lot of weight. I knew I was about to be crushed. I remember I was shaking because it was my first day back…so dad leads us in the Our Father—and then says, ‘Okay, we need some protection. We’re going to pray to St. Michael the Archangel.’ 

And just like that, after we prayed for protection against evil—right then and there—nothing became clearer to me—I would be protected. The power of what that prayer asks for and does gave me chills. I knew people would be throwing daggers and there would be backstabbing in the building. But I felt a wall surround me. 

Jesus Christ and His protection was the only way I could do this. He alone was the one that gave me the strength. He knew all of what would happen to me—he allowed it to happen—but because of it and His work in me, I no longer had fear. 

Steele swung back her shoulders as she walked into the ESPN mothership that day—as she did for the next 22 months (and 16 months after the lawsuit was filed)—smiled her big smile, and talked sports into a camera with grace and effervescence. Her soul was settled each morning because she was entering the building having just prayed to St. Michael and God. 

To many sports fans who lost jobs for refusing vaccinations or had been rendered helpless in a work environment sodden with political correctness, collectivist ideologies, and godlessness, Steele appeared each day on television sets throughout America as Rocky, one who’d stepped into a ring to confront a cocky, favored, and unbeatable opponent. Steele was blue-collar and Christian America’s unblinking fighter who’d aimed a sword at a gruesomely-expanding, hydra-headed woke dragon. The same woman who had interviewed thousands of heroes over the course of 26 years suddenly found herself to have become one. Tens of thousands of sports fans regarded her lawsuit as the sword plunged into the Disney-owned network’s heart.

In fairytales, though, and in real life, dragonslayers sometimes die. In the fall of 2023, Steele settled with ESPN out of court and then resigned. Now she spends her days immersed in the lives of her two daughters, Quinn and Evan, and son, Nicholas, while taking on many other work projects.

“I’ve lost a lot of friends, a nice salary, and a job I dreamed of doing since I was a small girl,” Steele said. 

But I prayed a lot throughout it all, and God pointed me to where I needed to go. And it was to speak truth despite the hatred. God was the guide who always put me on the right path. Today, I find myself speaking with Him all day long.

“I knew it was going to be tough for a while—a long while,” she said. 

I knew I was going to suffer, and in a way, I guess I still am suffering. I’m no longer at ESPN, a job I loved. But I am at peace despite it all. Really, I am. I did what was right. I went to where God led me.

Dear clergy, I ask that you take a few minutes to reflect on this small story of Sage Steele. Outside of the clubhouse that night in 1998, I was like many of you; but I lacked the sacramental character and grace uniquely given to you at your ordination. In this time of moral decay and a splintering Church, Steele’s way seems to be the only way: it will be through your willingness to accept stigmatization, hatred, and mockery from the world—buttressed by your devoted prayer, sacrifices, persistent care of souls, and, importantly, the witness of your couragethat the burden of your identity will be realized. 

You are the slaughtered lamb, and if you agree to courageously die to yourself—as Steele did in accepting the darkness and pain she endured—you will enable the balm of priestly ministry to be poured out as a libation upon today’s suffering Church. Millions of wandering souls who’ve left the Catholic faith will begin to come back and be formed in the Truth because of you—and it will begin to happen for one reason more than any other: you showed courage. 

I fear that if the prophetic collective voice of the clergy is not soon awakened from its slumber in the madness of these days and learns to act similarly to Sage Steele and others like her, Christ’s pilgrim Church will very soon become little more than a remnant (save Africa).

Cardinals, bishops, priests: with a world on fire, a Catholic president who champions causes of Satanists, and with young Catholics fleeing the Church like Israelites from Pharaoh, Sage Steele’s words—I went to where God led me—are a whirling flare pointing to your only path.

For those clergy inclined to dismiss this story of a woman who simply covered sports, read this warning from one of your own:
If a pastor remains silent when he sees God insulted and souls going astray, woe to him! If he does not want to be damned, and if there is some disorder in his parish, he must trample upon human respect and the fear of being despised or hated. (St. John Vianney)

[Image Credit: Jesse Grant/Getty Images]

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tagged as: Art & Culture Church

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