Longtime ESPN anchor Sage Steele filed a lawsuit against the network and parent company Disney on Thursday, alleging they violated her free-speech rights by sidelining her last year following critical comments she made on a podcast.
In the lawsuit, which was filed in state court in Connecticut, Steele claims that ESPN pulled her from her usual hosting roles after she criticized the company’s vaccine requirement, and forced her to issue an apology “under threat of losing her job.”
She had called the mandate “sick” and “scary to me in many ways” while appearing on a podcast hosted by former NFL quarterback Jay Cutler
“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,” her attorney, Bryan Freedman, said in a statement.
ESPN has denied suspending Steele, who has been with the company since 2007. She co-anchored the noon edition of SportsCenter on Thursday.
“Sage remains a valued contributor on some of ESPN’s highest profile content, including the recent Masters telecasts and anchoring our noon SportsCenter,” ESPN said.
Steele said on Cutler’s podcast that she received a COVID-19 vaccine only because it was required by ESPN.
“I work for a company that mandates it and I had until September 30th to get it done or I’m out,” Steele said. “I respect everyone’s decision, I really do, but to mandate it is sick and it’s scary to me in many ways.”
Amid backlash to that comment and others, Steele alleges in the lawsuit that ESPN executives told her she was being “sidelined” or “taking a break” on Oct. 4, five days after the podcast episode aired. She was “sidelined” until Oct. 14, according to the complaint.
Steele claims that ESPN proceeded to withdraw her from “all hosting assignments for major events” – including the New York City Marathon, the Rose Parade and the ESPNW Summit – while also failing to discipline ESPN colleagues who “publicly bullied” her.
Steele alleges in the lawsuit that she only received the opportunity to co-host ESPN’s Masters Coverage after she lodged a complaint with the network’s human resources department in February 2022.
The lawsuit also attempts to draw a comparison between ESPN’s treatment of Steele and other colleagues who violated network policy but were not punished.
“ESPN’s inconsistency in how it treated Steele as compared to her peers demonstrates that Steele was punished not only for exercising her constitutional right to free speech but because of the content of that speech,” the lawsuit alleges. “Steele was disciplined by her employer in violation of Connecticut state law because she exercised her First Amendment right to express opinions with which ESPN and Disney do not agree.”
Steele seeks unspecified damages, according to the lawsuit, in which she also claims that ESPN breached her contract. She claims that “her reputation and professional prospects have been damaged beyond repair.”
Contributing: Chris Bumbaca
Contact Tom Schad at email@example.com or on Twitter @Tom_Schad.