ESPN personality Sage Steele has filed a lawsuit against the network and its parent company, Walt Disney, over allegations that her free speech rights were violated.
In a complaint filed in a Connecticut court on Wednesday, Steele alleged that the sports media outlet retaliated against her for comments she made in a podcast interview last fall.
During an appearance on “Uncut with Jay Cutler” in September, Steele referred to ESPN’s COVID-19 vaccine mandate as “sick” and said she finds former President Obama identifying as Black “fascinating” because he was raised by his white mother and grandmother.
In response, ESPN removed Steele from programming for a week, though the company denies that it “suspended” her.
“The next day, on October 4, 2021, Steele was informed that she would be ‘sidelined’ or ‘taking a break’ (euphemisms for ‘suspended’) and would be required to issue a public apology for her comments,” the lawsuit said.
“ESPN and Disney took adverse actions against Steele in the nature of discipline and/or discharge as a result of her exercise of her right to free speech under the state and federal constitutions,” it adds.
“Steele was suspended from on-air appearances, forced to issue a humiliating public apology, taken off prime assignments, and subjected to bullying and harassment by colleagues while ESPN and Disney did nothing to stop it.”
Those “prime assignments” included the New York City Marathon, the Rose Parade and the ESPNW Summit, an event she had previously hosted.
Fellow ESPN personalities such as Ryan Clark, Mina Kimes, Sarah Spain and Nicole Briscoe either have publicly denounced or refused to work with Steele after her remarks, her suit alleges.
“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,” Steele’s attorney Bryan Freedman said in a statement to The Hill.
“Sage is standing up to corporate America to ensure employees don’t get their rights trampled on or their opinions silenced.”
In a statement to The Hill, an ESPN spokesperson said that Steele still remains a “valued contributor” for the network, noting her recent work on the network’s Master’s golf tournament coverage.
“Sage remains a valued contributor on some of ESPN’s highest profile content, including the recent Masters telecasts and anchoring our noon SportsCenter,” the ESPN spokesperson said. “As a point of fact, she was never suspended.”
Steele alleges in her complaint she was only offered the Master’s assignment after she filed a complaint to the ESPN’s Human Resources department earlier this year about her treatment.
Last year’s remarks weren’t the first time Steele, who has been with the sports media outlet since 2007, has stirred controversy with her public comments.
She told The Wall Street Journal in 2020 that her colleagues Elle Duncan and Michael Eaves, who are both Black, excluded her from appearing in a network special about race and protests of police-involved killings because she wasn’t “Black enough.”
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