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Sports Anchor Sage Steele Launches Legal Attack On ESPN: They Have No Right To Bench Me Over Free Speech As Private Citizen

Sports Anchor Sage Steele Launches Legal Attack On ESPN: They Have No Right To Bench Me Over Free Speech As Private Citizen

Sage Steele

PHOTO: Sage Steele hosts a party onstage at The Players Tailgate at Super Bowl LIV, Feb. 2, 2020, in Miami. (Jeff Lewis/AP Images for The Players Tailgate)

Veteran ESPN sports anchor Sage Steele is suing her employer and its parent company, Walt Disney Co., for allegedly benching her in retaliation after she criticized the company’s covid-19 vaccine mandate and former President Barack Obama’s decision to identify as Black.

It’s a “very unusual” move “just in general” for a current employee to sue their employer, said University of New Hampshire law professor Michael McCann, a legal writer for Sportico.

“So to have someone of that high profile sue the leading sports media company, I can’t think of anything off the top of my head that jumps out at me as analogous,” McCann said.

The lawsuit claims 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 a report by the Wall Street Journal.

Steele, 49, made the comments in September 2021 when she appeared on the “Uncut with Jay Cutler” podcast, hosted by the former NFL quarterback.

“I respect everyone’s decision, I really do, but to mandate it is sick and it’s scary to me in many ways. But I have a job, a job that I love and, frankly, a job that I need,” Steele told Cutler after disclosing she’d been vaccinated due to the company’s requirement. She said she felt “defeated” as a result.

When the topic came up of Obama choosing to identify as Black on the U.S. Censusp, Steele – who identifies as biracial – added, “I’m like, ‘Well, congratulations to the president.’ That’s his thing … I think that’s fascinating considering his Black dad was nowhere to be found, but his white mom and grandma raised him, but hey, you do you. I’m going to do me.”

Steele received backlash for her comments on social media and the lawsuit claims she was told she’d be “sidelined” or “taking a break” from the network – which she saw as a “euphemism for a suspension.”

The lawsuit alleges she was removed from high-profile assignments and bullied and harassed by colleagues. She sent a letter to the network in February about the issue and then she was given the assignment to co-host the Masters Tournament, The Daily Mail reported.

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The suit further alleges that ESPN did not investigate Steele’s comment but rather listened to “inaccurate third-party accounts” and forced her to apologize.

“I know my recent comments created controversy for the company, and I apologize,” Sage Steele. “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.”

The anchor’s suit alleges ESPN does selective enforcement of a policy in which employees are asked to refrain from weighing in on social and political issues. It outlines examples of other ESPN employees doing so with no consequences and noted that Steele made the comments as a “private citizen” who “wasn’t speaking for her employer.” 

“Sage is standing up to corporate America to ensure employees don’t get their rights trampled on or their opinions silenced,” her lawyer, Bryan Freedman, said in a statement. “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.”

ESPN issued a statement addressing the lawsuit. “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.” 

Here are some reactions from Twitter about the Sage Steel lawsuit:

https://twitter.com/Sensei_Kane_/status/1519705824876244993

PHOTO: Sage Steele hosts a party onstage at The Players Tailgate at Super Bowl LIV, Feb. 2, 2020, in Miami. (Jeff Lewis/AP Images for The Players Tailgate)