Sage Steele Sues ESPN Over Free Speech Claims

SportsCenter anchor Sage Steele is suing her employer ESPN and its parent company, Walt Disney Co., after she alleged that the company treated her unfairly for comments she made on a podcast interview last September, according to the Wall Street Journal. Steele alleges that the company breached her contract and violated her free-speech rights.

The ESPN anchor was under fire after appearing on former quarterback Jay Cutler’s podcast, “Uncut with Jay Cutler,” last year. During the interview, Steele questioned ESPN’s COVID-19 vaccine mandates and made comments about former President Barack Obama identifying as Black instead of biracial. She also said female sports journalists are partly to blame for athletes making inappropriate comments about them if they dress a specific way.

Following the interview, Steele tested positive for COVID-19, causing her to go off air while recovering. ESPN required the anchor to issue an apology for her comments.

Before the controversy, Steele was one of the lead anchors for ESPN’s flagship show, SportsCenter. Since the interview, Steele claims she has been sidelined for prime assignments. She does, however, continues to anchor the noon SportScenter broadcast. 

The suit also alleges that ESPN failed to “stop bullying and harassment by Ms. Steele’s colleagues,” The Wall Street Journal reports.

In 2017, ESPN established a rule requiring employees to refrain from commenting on political matters without a tie to sports. Steele claims her case was “selective enforcement” of this rule.

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The suit 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.”

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The Connecticut law in question, Sec. 31-51q., states companies cannot discipline employees for exercising their First Amendment rights, as long as the comments do not directly impact their work performance or company. Steele argues that because her comments were made on a third-party podcast that she should be considered a private citizen in this situation.

Additionally, Steele provided examples of her ESPN coworkers who have not been punished for political statements.

It is unknown what Steele is seeking to recoup in damages in the case.

ESPN responded to the suit with this statement: “Sage remains a valued contributor on some of ESPN’s highest profile content, including the recent Masters telecasts and anchoring our noon SportsCenter.”

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