SportsCenter co-anchor Sage Steele has sued ESPN and corporate parent The Walt Disney Co. for allegedly violating both her contract and her free speech rights, according to multiple reports.
Steele is reportedly claiming that the network “sidelined” her last year after she made remarks about ESPN’s Covid policy and former President Barack Obama’s ethnic identity.
The Wall Street Journal indicates the suit alleges that, even after Steele returned from a one-week break — the nature of which she also disputes — the anchor lost plum assignments like the New York City Marathon and hosting the network’s yearly event highlighting women and diverse voices.
Steele’s legal filing says she contacted ESPN’s human resources department with her concerns and was then offered co-hosting duties for The Masters.
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The comments in question came on onetime Chicago Bears quarterback Jay Cutler’s podcast. Steele described ESPN/Disney’s vaccine mandate as “sick and scary.” (Disney was among the first large employers to decide to require workers to be vaccinated, a move that was later widely emulated across corporate America.)
In addition to Covid, Steele also questioned the fact that Obama identifies as Black, given the circumstances of his upbringing.
“Congratulations to the President. That’s his thing,” she said. “I think that’s fascinating considering his Black dad is nowhere to be found, but his white mom and grandma raised him, but OK. You do you. I’m gonna do me.”
Steele co-anchors the mid-day edition of network flagship SportsCenter. After her comments, Steele took a week break from the show.
ESPN declined to comment on why she stepped back when contacted at the time by Deadline.
Steele had also recently tested positive for Covid. The decision for her to be off for a week was said at the time to be related to her illness hand described as “mutual.”
As the news of her comments broke, ESPN issued the following statement to Deadline:
At ESPN, we embrace different points of view – dialogue and discussion makes this place great. That said, we expect that those different points of view be expressed respectfully, in a manner consistent with our values, and in line with our internal policies. We are having direct conversations with Sage and those conversations will remain private.
Steele at the time also acknowledged her role in the situation and apologized.
“I know my recent comments caused controversy for the company, and I apologize,” she said in a statement relayed by ESPN. “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.”
Steele’s lawsuit maintains ESPN has “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,” according to the Wall Street Journal, which says the action seeks unspecified damages.
“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 also alleges, per NBC.
The network reportedly denies suspending her.
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