SportsCenter’s Sage Steele has taken legal action against her employer.
According to Deadline, the longtime ESPN anchor is suing the network and its parent company, The Walt Disney Co., for allegedly violating her right to free speech. The claim stems a September 2021 episode of the Uncut With Jay Cutler podcast, in which Steele made a number of controversial comments about Disney’s COVID-19 policies, sexism in the workplace, as well as Barack Obama’s racial identity.
Steele says on Oct. 4, 2021, the network informed her she would be “sidelined” or “taking a break” in light of the controversy. She claims that upon her return in mid-October, she lost a number of highly coveted assignments, like covering the New York City Marathon and the Rose Parade, as well as hosting the 12th Annual ESPNW Summit. Steele also issued a public apology over her remarks.
“In a knee-jerk reaction, ESPN and Disney relied on the misleading characterizations of her comments, bowed to groupthink and forced Steele to publicly apologize and suspended her for a period of time in October 2021,” the suit read. “… It is clear that ESPN selectively enforces its policies based on whether it agrees with the political views of the employees in question.”
According to the lawsuit, Steele contacted the network’s human resources department and expressed her concerns about what she perceived to be retaliation. The complaint also points out that under Connecticut law, private employers are prohibited from disciplining employees for “engaging in constitutionally protected speech, whether that speech takes place in the workplace or outside of it.”
Per the suit: “After they received the complaint and the letter, Defendants suddenly offered Steele the opportunity to co-host ESPN’s coverage of The Masters Tournament, in a blatant admission of their culpability and prior misconduct and in an attempt to cover up their violation of her rights and to avoid liability.”
Steele is seeking unspecified damages.
ESPN responded to the suit in the following statement to Deadline: “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.”
During her appearance on Cutler’s podcast last year, Steele referred to Disney’s vaccine mandate as “sick and scary,” and said women who dress provocatively are partly responsible for any “gross comments” they receive. She also touched on former President Obama, and his decision to identify as Black rather than biracial.
“I’m like, well, congratulations to the president. That’s his thing,” she 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.”