ESPN is contesting the narrative that it temporarily suspended anchor Sage Steele over her alleged criticism of former President Barack Obama and COVID-19 vaccine mandates.
On Wednesday, ESPN was served with a lawsuit that alleged the network and parent Walt Disney Co. violated Steele’s First Amendment rights and Connecticut’s free speech protections in the aftermath of comments she made on former NFL quarterback Jay Cutler’s podcast in September.
Steele alleged in the lawsuit, first reported by The Wall Street Journal, she was suspended two days after recovering from COVID-19 and “under threat of losing her job, was forced to issue” an apology over statements made to Cutler.
In the podcast that was published Sept. 29, Steele described Disney’s vaccine mandate as “sick and scary” and questioned Obama’s choice to identify as Black on the U.S. Census.
“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,” Bryan Freedman, Steele’s attorney, said in a statement to Front Office Sports. “Sage is standing up to corporate America to ensure employees don’t get their rights trampled on or their opinions silenced.”
While ESPN was served with the lawsuit, it has not yet been filed in a Connecticut court. That’s expected to occur within days.
An ESPN spokesman pointed to Steele’s recent high-profile hosting role on Masters Tournament coverage earlier this month as an indicator she was and is a valued employee.
“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,” said the ESPN spokesperson.
In the lawsuit obtained by FOS, Steele alleged she only got the Masters assignment after a complaint filed with ESPN’s human resources department and a subsequent letter to the company from her attorney.
“[ESPN] suddenly offered Steele the opportunity to co-host ESPN’s coverage of the Masters Tournament, in a blatant admission of their culpability and prior misconduct and in an attempt to cover up their violation of her rights and to avoid liability,” the lawsuit states.
To work The Masters, the lawsuit claims Steele had “no choice but to get the [COVID-19 vaccine] booster,” a requirement for all employees covering on-site events. She received the booster in the March, although missed the deadline set by ESPN by two days. ESPN gave Steele “a one-time exemption to the booster mandate,” according to the lawsuit.
ESPN draft analyst Mel Kiper Jr. will miss this week’s NFL Draft and will contribute from home since he’s unvaccinated.
ESPN has suspended other on-air talents over the years, including Bill Simmons, Jemele Hill, Tony Kornhesier and Curt Schilling.