We recently caught up with ESPN reporter Michele Steele.
Since she has been at ESPN, Michele Steele has been a “have talent, will travel” type of reporter. She’s worked in numerous markets, including Boston for several years, and is now back in her hometown of Chicago. Steele is frequently on the road covering some of the biggest stories the Worldwide Leader is working on. This week, Steele spoke with us about how her career has gotten to this point and what has stood out thus far.
The Spun: Well, let’s start with the most recent big storyline you’ve covered. Your hometown Cubs snapped their long title drought. What was that like for you to see them do that and be working back in Chicago when it happened? I heard you had some fans asking you to come cover their teams as a good luck charm.
MS: WHAT A THRILL. Seriously. I grew up watching Cubs games in the summer with my grandma – who as a Filipino immigrant taking care of six of us grandkids in the summer NEVER went to a game, but that’s another story – so I have fond memories of how close they came at times but were never able to seal the deal. Even when Andre Dawson made it into Cooperstown a few years ago, that was exciting for anybody that remembers watching him in Chicago, but of course, he went in as an Expo. It’s like there’s always something for Cubs fans, ya know? So it was an awesome, fun way to make my re-entry to the city. I’ll never forget being in Wrigleyville for Game 7 and seeing the entire place explode — it was a mix of relief and pure elation and I don’t think the feeling has worn off yet.
And yeah, I did have some Baltimore fans reach out on social media and ask if I could move there and work my “magic” on their team. I think they’d do better calling Theo Epstein instead.
The Spun: Overall, what has it been like working back in your old stomping grounds in Chicago? It has to be a homecoming of sorts after being an East Coaster for a while, no?
MS: It’s like finding an old sweatshirt you haven’t worn in a while but loved when you first got it. Chicago is both familiar and new. It’s obviously my hometown but the faces are totally new to me. For instance, the last time I covered the Bulls (for my job before ESPN), Derrick Rose, Joakim Noah and Thibs were on the team. There’s been complete turnover since I was here last, so I’ve been trying to get up to speed quickly and go to games, practices and meet with folks whenever I have days off.
The Spun: The most popular question you said you get is: how did you get into this field? More specifically, your undergrad degree is in Econ. How did you decide to transition into getting a masters in journalism and working in this field?
MS: When you get a job at ESPN, I think the final entry on the personal questionnaire should be: what will you tell people when they ask you how to get this gig? because that is the most popular question many of us get by a mile. Well that, and what is Bill Belichick really like?
I feel so lucky to have landed at such a special place after such a circuitous, unconventional route to get here.
I think I can say this because it’s been so long but my first job offer out of school was from CIA – the Directorate of Intelligence, specifically – I was going to contribute to a daily intelligence briefing that would be disseminated to the White House. It was an interesting and potentially meaningful job – and given that my dad and grandfather had worked in public service, my family was proud, but I had my own reservations. I was still hoping to get into journalism. As I was filling out security clearance paperwork and looking for places to live near headquarters — I got a call from Bloomberg News to intern that summer in New York. I thought, this is my shot. My dad did what was meaningful for him and worked for the federal government his whole life – but he on occasion talked about how “fun” it would’ve been to be a broadcaster. I decided then that maybe I could pursue media and if I wasn’t any good at it, well, I still have a couple numbers in Langley.
After the internship and a masters in journalism down the road– I went back to working for Bloomberg, this time full time, and they asked me to cover sports when the Tiger Woods scandal broke. And then they started a terrific fantasy sports department run by my friend, Rob Shaw. Right place, right time — I later went to the BCS championship, the Derby, the Super Bowl and it turned into a real deal beat for me. I was the first sports reporter at Bloomberg TV and sent my reel to ESPN a couple of years later.
The Spun: Piggybacking off the last question: you taught English for a couple of years in France and Martinique. How did that opportunity arise and what was that experience like for you?
MS: When I was in college, I took a bunch of French classes because.. I liked it. Yeah, I said it. And the French have it figured out -wine, vacation, cheese, I think it’s actually illegal in parts of France to send an email after 6 pm or something. Did I mention the cheese? One of my French professors asked at the end of a class what I was going to do with my life after graduation and I said, “putting off my amazing career.” Zing! He encouraged me to apply for a program run by the State Department that sent English speakers to France to teach um, English, in French schools. You wouldn’t make a ton of money, but you weren’t going into debt either. And you had 7 weeks of paid vacation for a 9 month school year. I didn’t need to read the fine print. I went to France the first year (Here’s a video I made from that time: https://www.youtube.com/watch?
The Spun: As a live reporter, you’ve covered pretty much every major sporting event there is, from Super Bowls to Kentucky Derby’s and everything in between. What in particular stands out for you? Any events/moments?
MS: Well, not sure if you guys heard by the Warriors did something earlier this year.. blowing… a … 3-1 lead.. in the NBA Finals? It was pretty low-key, no one really wrote about it or covered it at length.
Actually, it was the series before that that sticks with me. I was in Oakland when the Thunder blew their own 3-1 lead in the Western Conference Finals. And I remember how quickly Russell Westbrook and some other Thunder players left the court — and how Kevin Durant kind of lingered, showing some love to his opponents and getting a standing ovation from the crowd. Everybody knew he was a free agent but at that moment, I wasn’t thinking this is it for KD. Hindsight is 20/20 as they say.
Two other things stand out for me as well. One was seeing Aaron Hernandez get arrested. I was outside his house when he did his perp walk – what a surreal sight. He looked defiant, yet ridiculous in shorts and dress shoes and handcuffs – never to walk on an NFL field ever again.
The other was Bill Belichick’s Mona Lisa Vito speech on PSI the week before the Super Bowl. The Patriots called an impromptu press conference about air pressure with BB. I have a sentence in my Deflategate notebook that says in all caps “A FOOTBALL IS A BLADDER.”
The Spun: You’ve worked in Boston and in NYC, and now back in Chicago. What are each of those markets like? What major similarities and differences have you seen?
MS: Boston is the ultimate sports town — Boston is a place where you’ll see a dude at the Bruins game in a Chara jersey and a Red Sox cap, and he’ll have a TB12 bumper sticker on his car. Deflategate reminded me of the etymology of the word fan — it’s short for fanatic and I’ve never seen a single story captivate and enrage a region for as a long as this scandal over deflated footballs did. There are still “truthers” out there — fighting the good fight, and boy do they love their New England Patriots. (Full disclosure: the league deserves the scrutiny it received for picking a fight with their most marketable player – and levying a punishment that defied reason and for that matter, precedent. But I digress…).
There’s so much going on in New York, sports feels secondary but it’s the best place to be for leagues, commissioners, media, agents — I still associate it with the NFL lockout, and standing outside Proskauer Rose all those summer afternoons. Great for networking.
I said Boston was a sports town, Chicago is a sports town too — and now, people who go to games at Wrigley actually CARE about the outcome. Make no mistake, once/when/if the Bears get relevant, this is a Bears town through and through.
The Spun: Like most journalists, you’re active on social media. Most people say they have positive experiences on it, but trolls/harassment/negativity is a major issue. What has your experience been like?
MS: After the year we had and seeing what some of my colleagues in politics have to deal with, I am grateful for my sports trolls. I’m a reporter and don’t do a lot of editorializing, so my experience has been overall pretty positive, but I know how quickly Twitter in particular can go to a very dark place.
The Spun: Now for something off the work path. You are active as a Parkinsons Disease advocate. How did you get involved in that?
MS: My dad has Parkinsons — it’s a brutal illness. There’s some complicated neuroscience at play, but the way I explain it to people is that he’s basically “stuck” in his body. His mind is working, his body is not. Imagine wanting to walk across a room or talk to someone who asks you a question, and you can’t because you can’t control those muscles. It’s maddening. It’s affected his ability to work, to communicate, to live his life – maybe that’s one reason I decided to take a shot at journalism. Life is short. Do what you want.
The Spun: On a lighter note: You’re a Chicago native but you have said you prefer NY Pizza. Why is that? And did you have your Windy City citizenship revoked for saying that? Also, what exactly is a Chicago-style hot dog, and why is it so good?
MS: Chicago pizza is not pizza, it’s a meat cake. I like cake. I like meat. I do not like meat cake. New York is the only city in the world outside of maybe Naples where you can get a slice and it’s going to be eatable. You fold, you go on with your day.
A Chicago style hot dog is a hot dog dragged through a garden – it’s relish, onions, tomato, celery salt, a pickle, mustard, peppers and NO KETCHUP. (I do no peppers, though)
The Spun: Lastly: is the work environment at ESPN as family-oriented as it seem? Sure there are differences in backgrounds, genders, etc but when watching ESPN programs, everyone always seems to be committed to working together and helping each other as much as possible. Also, both Dianna Russini and Sarina Morales told me they couldn’t do it without co-worker support.
MS: I have some of the best colleagues in the business –whether I’m in studio and in the field, people look out for each other. I was at the Bulls game and ran into Doris Burke – she made time for me pregame as she was going through what I’m sure was 4 million checks that she had to do before tipoff. Another time, I was anchoring earlier this year on short notice and I got such a kind note midway through the show from Mike Tirico. Two icons, two pros and both couldn’t be nicer. These are examples off the top of my head, but there are countless others. Can you say dream job?
Note: Michele Steele’s interview is part of a series of Q&As we’re doing with various media personalities. You can read our recent interviews with ESPN’s Dianna Russini here, Sarina Morales here, and Sam Ponder here.