ESPN’s SportsCenter anchor Sage Steele, 49, filed a lawsuit against the network and the parent company Walt Disney Co. for punishing her for controversial remarks she made during a podcast interview last year. Steele said that she was removed from a broadcasting position and that this violated her contract and her right to free speech, according to The Wall Street Journal.
During her appearance on former NFL quarterback Jay Cutler’s podcast, Uncut with Jay Cutler, Steele questioned her company’s COVID-19 vaccine requirement, calling it “sick,” and said she took the vaccine but “didn’t want to do it.”
“I work for a company that mandates it and I had until Sept. 30 to get it done or I’m out,” Steele told Cutler during the podcast.
“I respect everyone’s decision, I really do, but to mandate it is sick and it’s scary to me in many ways,” she said. “I just, I’m not surprised it got to this point, especially with Disney, I mean a global company like that.”
Steele filed her lawsuit in Connecticut, alleging that ESPN suspended her for her remarks and that the network demanded she 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 states, according to NBC News.
The lawsuit also references numerous media stories that reported Steele was suspended, and said, “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,” according to the New York Post.
The court document also alleged that Steele lost prime assignments, like hosting the NYC Marathon and ESPNW Summit, and that the company did not stop the harassment and bullying she received from colleagues.
In 2017, ESPN created a guideline that prohibited employees from making statements on political matters unrelated to sports. Steele alleges ESPN selectively enforced this rule with her situation, Sports Illustrated reports.
ESPN, however, said they had “direct” and “private” conversations with Steele, according to the Post.
“Sage remains a valued contributor on some of ESPN’s highest profile content, including the recent Masters telecasts and anchoring our noon ‘SportsCenter,'” an ESPN spokesperson said in a statement, according to the Post. “As a point of fact, she was never suspended.”
A source informed the Post that Steele would continue as an on-air host during her lawsuit.
During her interview on the podcast, she also questioned why former President Barack Obama identified as Black on the census as opposed to biracial. She also said that women journalists are responsible for the harassment they receive for their outfits, the Post reports.