ESPN broadcaster Sage Steele on Thursday sued her employer, claiming the company violated her right to free speech when they "sidelined" her for making controversial comments on a podcast.
Steele made the comments — blasting ESPN's Covid-19 vaccination policy and questioning former President Barack Obama’s racial identity — in a Sept. 29 episode of the “Uncut With Jay Cutler” podcast with Cutler, a former Chicago Bears quarterback.
During the podcast, Steele, who said she had just been vaccinated, referred to her company’s vaccination mandate as “sick.” ESPN is co-owned by The Walt Disney Co.
Steele also accused former “The View” host Barbara Walters of belittling her for identifying as biracial.
“She’s like, ‘Well what happens when you ... fill out your census?’” Steele said. “If they make you choose a race, she’s like, ‘What are you going to put?’ I go, ‘Well, both.’”
“‘Barack Obama chose Black, and he’s biracial,’" she said Walters responded. "And I’m like, well, congratulations to the president. That’s his thing. I think that’s fascinating considering his Black dad was nowhere to be found but his white mom and grandma raised him. But hey, you do you, I’m going to do me.”
Also in the podcast, Steele said women who wear provocative clothing in the workplace bear a responsibility for sexism aimed toward them.
“When you dress like that, I’m not saying you deserve the gross comments, but you know what you’re doing when you put that outfit on, too,” she said. “We need to be responsible as women, too. We know what we’re doing when we put certain things on.”
Steele's lawsuit said that following her comments on the podcast, media coverage "erupted."
"In a knee-jerk reaction, ESPN and Disney relied on the misleading characterizations of her comments, bowed to groupthink and forced Steele to publicly apologize and suspended her for a period of time in October 2021," the suit said.
ESPN denied ever suspending Steele.
“Sage remains a valued contributor on some of ESPN’s highest profile content, including the recent Masters telecasts and anchoring our noon SportsCenter," said a statement from the company. "As a point of fact, she was never suspended.”
Steele's suit said ESPN told her she would be "sidelined" or "taking a break," which it said were euphemisms for "suspended." It also said ESPN never corrected media reports that Steele had been suspended.
"ESPN and Disney have continued to punish Steele by removing her from prime assignments, including coverage of the New York City Marathon, the Rose Parade, and the 12th Annual ESPNW Summit, which Steele had hosted and emceed since its inception in 2010," said the suit.
ESPN also forced Steele to issue "a humiliating public apology," the suit said.
But Steele's suit said she did nothing wrong and is protected by the First Amendment because she appeared on the podcast as a private citizen, on her day off and made it clear she was not speaking on behalf of the company.
"Connecticut law prohibits private employers from disciplining their employees for engaging in constitutionally protected speech, whether that speech takes place in the workplace or outside of it," the suit said.
According to The National Law Review "under Connecticut law, both public and private employees have free speech protections and employers are prohibited from disciplining or discharging employees for exercising their free speech rights with certain limitations."
Free speech "is permissible assuming that it does not interfere with the employee’s job performance or relationship with the employer and addresses a matter of public concern such as terms and conditions of employment, social justice, among other reasons," the National Law Review says.
Steele's suit said ESPN has a double-standard. "It is clear that ESPN selectively enforces its policies based on whether it agrees with the political views of the employees in question," the suit said.
Steele complained to human resources in February about their "blatant violations of Steele’s constitutional rights," and her attorneys followed up with a letter.
"After they received the complaint and the letter, Defendants 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 suit alleged.
Steele is seeking punitive and compensatory damages due to lost revenue and business opportunities.
“Sage is standing up to corporate America to ensure employees don’t get their rights trampled on or their opinions silenced,” said her lawyer, Bryan Freedman.