SportsCenter anchor Sage Steele sued ESPN and its parent company, Walt Disney Co., alleging that the company retaliated against her after making comments on a podcast interview last September. According to the Wall Street Journal, Steele alleged that the company breached her contract and violated her free-speech rights.
Steele faced backlash for her controversial comments following an appearance on former quarterback Jay Cutler’s podcast Uncut with Jay Cutler last year. In the interview, the ESPN anchor questioned the COVID-19 vaccination mandates while criticizing former President Barack Obama for identifying as Black instead of biracial. She also said female sports journalists are partly to blame for receiving unwanted attention from athletes due to their clothing attire.
After testing positive for COVID-19, Steele took a brief hiatus from her on-air position and started recovering at home. In addition, ESPN required the anchor to issue an apology for the disputable statements she made on the podcast show.
Since the interview, Steele alleges that ESPN has sidelined her from prime assignments as one of the lead anchors for the company. However, she still anchors the noon slot for SportsCenter.
According to the lawsuit, the company failed to “stop bullying and harassment by Ms. Steele’s colleagues,” the outlet reported.
For the past few years, politics has been heavily expressed in sports, prompting ESPN to establish a rule in 2017 that prohibited employees from speaking on political matters if not related to sports. Steele claimed her case was “selective enforcement” of this rule.
The suit also 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.”
According to Connecticut law, Sec. 31-51 q., an employer cannot discipline its employees for exercising their First Amendment rights as long as the comments do not interfere with their job performance while employed with the company. Steele insisted that she was a private citizen following her remarks on a third-party podcast.
ESPN responded to the suit in a written statement, “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.”