SportsCenter anchor Sage Steele is suing ESPN and its parent company, Walt Disney Company after alleging she was benched from assignments because of comments she made on a podcast interview last year, according to the Wall Street Journal.
Steele who currently co-hosts the noon edition of “SportsCenter," claims that the company violated her free-speech rights and breached her contract.
The lawsuit, filed in Connecticut, alleges that Steele was put on the sidelines by ESPN for her remarks and that the company forced her to apologize.
“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 lawsuit says.
Appearing on Jay Cutler’s podcast, “Uncut with Jay Cutler,” last year, Steele questioned the company’s COVID-19 vaccine mandates.
“I work for a company that mandates it and I had until September 30 to get it done or I’m out,” Steele told Cutler.
She went on to offer her opinion about former President Barack Obama identifying as Black instead of biracial and said that female sports journalists are partly to blame for athletes making sexist comments because of the way they dress.
After the interview, Steele tested positive for COVID-19 and went off air while recovering. ESPN required her to issue an apology for her remarks.
The lawsuit also alleges that ESPN disciplined Steele based on “inaccurate third-party accounts of Steele’s comments and that the network did not immediately review the actual comments or the context in which they were made.” The lawsuit continues to mentions numerous stories in the press that referred to Steele as being suspended alleging that “ESPN did nothing to rebut the widespread reports that it had suspended or otherwise disciplined Steele for her comments, both because those reports were true and because ESPN stood to benefit from the public perception that it had punished Steele for her remarks.” It also claims that Steele was removed from assignments such as hosting the NYC Marathon and ESPNW Summit, an event she had emceed since 2010.
Several colleagues at ESPN were critical of her on-air or on social media according to the lawsuit. Steele sent ESPN executive Norby Williamson a screenshot of a tweet from SportsCenter anchor Nicole Briscoe, who “retweeted a post from someone who said she hoped ESPN no longer uses Ms. Steele to cover women’s sporting events, with Ms. Briscoe adding, ‘Amen. (Even if it gets me in trouble.) Amen.’ ”
The lawsuit claimed that the tweet remained up three months later.
Ryan Clark, a current football analyst at ESPN, allegedly refused to appear on-air with Steele and was never disciplined, the suit claimed.
“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,” her attorney, Bryan Freedman, said in a statement. “Sage is standing up to corporate America to ensure employees don’t get their rights trampled on or their opinions silenced.”
ESPN responded to the lawsuit by releasing a statement:
“Sage remains a valued contributor on some of ESPN’s highest-profile content, including the recent Masters telecasts and anchoring our noon SportsCenter,” ESPN's statement read. “ As a point of fact, she was never suspended.”