LOS ANGELES — Sage Steele doesn’t have much time for clichés, and “work-life balance” is near the top of her list of pet peeves.
“I don’t think it exists,” Steele, 44, the host of ESPN’s SportsCenter on the Road and the weekend editions of NBA Countdown on ABC, told USA TODAY Sports with a smile and a shake of the head recently. “To me balance means equal. It is not equal. I have given up trying to make it all perfect.”
Steele juggles her high-profile on-screen positions with being a mother to three children, the nature of the jobs and the time commitment associated with them creating an unavoidable clash that she and husband Jonathan Bailey strive to minimize.
Bailey gave up work to be a stay-at-home dad 15 years ago, allowing Steele to chase her work dreams. While her career has only continued to climb, Steele has never lost sight of the privilege of her position, getting to rub shoulders with some of the biggest names in sports, yet there have been times when she wished she was anywhere but a locker room, or a sideline, or a studio.
“Dance solos, basketball games, homecoming dance,” Steele said, listing off some of the countless events in her children’s lives that she has been unable to be present for. “Those are things you don’t get back, but I also hope my kids are seeing that women can do anything, (as I) have that non-traditional role as the breadwinner.”
Steele was talking on the Los Angeles set of NBA Countdown, where a few moments earlier she had snapped off some slick repartee with NBA star-turned-broadcaster Jalen Rose, the pair spicing up a routine half-time recap with bursts of analysis and a smattering of opinion.
As her segment ended, Steele wandered over to discuss her journey through the sometimes treacherous waters of sports media.
Both parts of that world — from the sports to the media circus that covers them — are heavily male-dominated. Yet for Steele at least, the best way to succeed in that environment was to ignore the inherent obstacles and focus on the task at hand.
Steele was born in the Panama Canal Zone and is a self-confessed “army brat” who grew up with a pair of sports-loving brothers and a father, Gary, who was the first black man to play varsity football at Army and was enshrined in its Hall of Fame in 2013.
After watching the 1984 Olympics in Los Angeles on television, Steele announced to her family that she would be a sports television anchor, a path that would ultimately lead her to local TV in Indiana, before landing at ESPN in 2007.
“I probably should have thought about (the gender gap) more getting into this industry but I didn’t, and it is good now I guess,” Steele said. “You just go and try to do your thing and be really good at your job. I have never focused on the female part, I think it helped more often than it hurt me, I really do.
“There was some initial ugliness in the early days. But one of the coolest things to see was in NFL locker rooms. Initially it would be ‘What is her story? What does she want? Is she straight or not? Is she here for the wrong reason?’
“But I was just me and eventually the (doubts) stopped and they respected me for asking good questions.”