SportsCenter anchor Sage Steele has filed a lawsuit against employer ESPN and its parent company, Walt Disney Co.
Steele alleges that the company breached her contract and violated her free-speech rights following an interview on former quarterback Jay Cutler’s podcast, “Uncut with Jay Cutler,” last year.
Steele spoke out about ESPN’s vaccine mandate, labeling it as “sick” and “scary.” She also made inflammatory remarks about Barack Obama’s decision to identify as “Black” instead of biracial.
“Well, congratulations to the president. That’s his thing,”‘ Steele said. “I think that’s fascinating considering his Black dad was nowhere to be found, but his white mom and grandma raised him, but hey, you do you. I’m going to do me.”
Steele faced significant backlash over the remarks.
“Despite fully complying with ESPN’s policy, Sage Steele was punished for speaking her truth in violation of freedom of speech protections under Connecticut law and the U.S. constitution,” her attorney Bryan Freedman said in a statement. “ESPN violated her free speech rights, retaliated against her, reprimanded her, scapegoated her, allowed the media and her peers to excoriate her and forced her to apologize simply because her personal opinions did not align with Disney’s corporate philosophy of the moment. Sage is standing up to corporate America to ensure employees don’t get their rights trampled on or their opinions silenced.”
After the controversial interview aired, Steele tested positive for COVID-19. ESPN then demanded that she issue a public apology for her remarks.
“I know my recent comments created controversy for the company, and I apologize. We are in the midst of an extremely challenging time that impacts all of us, and it’s more critical than ever that we communicate constructively and thoughtfully,” she said at the time.
The news anchor also claims the network failed to “stop bullying and harassment by Ms. Steele’s colleagues,” per The Wall Street Journal.
The suit states that ESPN “violated Connecticut law and Steele’s rights to free speech based upon a faulty understanding of her comments and a nonexistent, unenforced workplace policy that serves as nothing more than pretext.”
Steele contends her comments were made on a third-party podcast and thus, she should be considered a private citizen in this case and that she also provided examples of her ESPN colleagues who have not been punished for political statements.
ESPN released the following statement about the lawsuit: “Sage remains a valued contributor on some of ESPN’s highest profile content, including the recent Masters telecasts and anchoring our noon SportsCenter. As a point of fact, she was never suspended.”
The damages Steele is seeking have not been made available to the public.