Sage Steele is one of the highest-paid employees at ESPN, a network undergoing another round of mandated cuts to on-air talent.
However, the “SportsCenter” anchor’s lawsuit against ESPN and Disney could put her multiyear deal off limits during the ongoing cost-saving measures.
“There’s always the potential to add a new claim for retaliation,” employment law attorney Hillary Lynch told Front Office Sports. “It could be seen as a continuing violation of what she’s already asserted.”
Steele sued ESPN and Disney in April 2022 for allegations her free-speech rights were violated when she claimed she was suspended for two days after her comments on former NFL quarterback Jay Cutler’s podcast. Steele described Disney’s COVID-19 vaccine mandate as “sick and scary” in the September 2021 interview.
ESPN denied Steele was suspended, and there’s no indication she lost any compensation over what she told Cutler. That would make a jury’s job difficult to determine monetary damages if Steele prevails in a trial scheduled for March 2024.
But a firing would certainly up her employer’s potential liability.
“She could make an argument of lost wages and a loss of earning capacity and earning potential,” said Lynch, senior counsel at the Dallas-based firm Platt Cheema Richmond.
ESPN denied Steele was suspended, and there are no indications that she lost any salary. Steele makes $3 million per year under her current contract that runs for about another year, sources told FOS.
ESPN offered Steele $501,000 to cover “reasonable” attorney fees to settle the case last week. Her attorney, Bryan Freedman, rejected that offer on Steele’s behalf.
“Disney cannot purchase their employee’s constitutional rights no matter how powerful they think they are,” Freedman said.
As an employee of a non-government organization, Steele has no standing to prevail purely on First Amendment grounds. But a Connecticut statute protects all employees from being disciplined for “rights guaranteed by the First Amendment” as long as “such activity does not substantially” impact an employee’s job performance.
And if Steele is fired after the lawsuit is disposed of, her attorney promised a new lawsuit for retaliation if Steele was forced out of The Worldwide Leader.
“We’d sue,” Freedman told FOS. “You can’t fire somebody [for filing a lawsuit]. Nobody would. Why wouldn’t they lay her off already?”
Freedman said all Steele was looking for when she filed the lawsuit was a public apology from ESPN, but — with the case now 14 months old — that aim may have changed as her legal expenses have mounted.
Senior reporter Michael McCarthy contributed to this report.