Sage Steele is the only openly conservative personality at ESPN, and she has never shied away from or compromised her beliefs. That’s made her a target for wokes at the subsidiary of The Walt Disney Company, and now she’s suing ESPN and Disney for violating her free speech rights.
The Wall Street Journal reports that the suit stems from comments Steele made in a podcast with former NFL quarterback Jay Cutler in September 2021. Steele talked about two topics that shouldn’t be controversial but have become so in this polarized age: her views on COVID-19 vaccine mandates and her opinion on race relations as a mixed-race woman.
“Ms. Steele’s podcast interview last September was on ‘Uncut with Jay Cutler,’ a program that isn’t affiliated with ESPN or Disney,” the WSJ report states. “The suit said Ms. Steele appeared as a private citizen and wasn’t speaking for her employer.”
Steele told Cutler that she got the COVID vaccine because Disney required her to do so and that she did so to keep her job, but she opined that the mandate was “sick” and “scary to me in many ways.”
She also talked about the fact that she identifies as biracial and contrasted that identification to Barack Obama identifying as black despite an absent black father and a white mother and grandmother who raised him.
“You do you. I’m going to do me,” she concluded.
The podcasted appeared in apps on Sept. 29 and it didn’t take long for Steele to face backlash on social media. On Oct. 4, ESPN told Steele that she would be “sidelined” or “taking a break,” which Steele saw as a suspension, despite ESPN denying that she suspended the anchor.
Steele claims that ESPN forced an apology: “I know my recent comments created controversy for the company, and I apologize. 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.”
She also says that ESPN removed her from key assignments like covering the New York City Marathon and hosting a summit celebrating women. She made a similar complaint in 2020 that ESPN removed her from special on race because colleagues “didn’t view her as an authentic voice” for black people, although the network denied at the time that her exclusion has anything do with politics.
In February of this year, after speaking to human resources, ESPN offered her coverage of The Masters.
The suit alleges that ESPN has “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” based on “inaccurate third-party accounts of Steele’s comments, and that the network did not immediately review the actual comments or the context in which they were made.”
Steele’s lawsuit also points out that other ESPN on-air talent has made political statements on ESPN and on social media without facing backlash.
ESPN responded to the suit by releasing a statement asserting that “Sage remains a valued contributor on some of ESPN’s highest profile content, including the recent Masters telecasts and anchoring our noon SportsCenter.”
Did ESPN deny Steele plum assignments and suspend-but-not-suspend her for her political views? It’s not too far-fetched to imagine that reliably woke ESPN would treat a conservative anchor this way, and we’ll see if the court agrees with Steele.