ESPN is being sued by Sage Steele for allegedly infringing on her right to freedom of speech.
One of ESPN's long-serving anchors is suing the corporation and its parent firm, The Walt Disney Co., for allegedly violating his right to free speech and contract.
Sage Steele, a guest on the Uncut with Jay Cutler podcast in September, expressed dissatisfaction with her employer's COVID-19 vaccine obligation and made a passing reference to former President Barack Obama when discussing her racial identity. She was then snatched from the air.
During an appearance on a podcast hosted by former NFL quarterback Jay Cutler, she described the mandate as "sick" and "frightening to me in many respects."
"ESPN retaliated against her, reprimanded her, scapegoated her, permitted the media and her peers to excoriate her, and compelled her to apologise simply because her personal ideas did not line with Disney's current corporate ideology," her attorney, Bryan Freedman, said in a statement.
Steele, who has been with ESPN since 2007, has disputed being suspended. On Thursday, she was a co-anchor on SportsCenter at noon.
Steele's legal team said ESPN took her words out of context, according to the court document. They went even farther, arguing that ESPN used a double standard in denouncing Steele for her remarks while ignoring other workers' political and provocative utterances.
"Sage continues to be a valuable contributor on some of ESPN's most high-profile content, including recent Masters telecasts and anchoring our midday SportsCenter," according to ESPN.
"Everyone's decision is respected by me. I truly believe that. But to mandate it is sick, and it's scary to me in many ways," Steele said on the podcast. "But I have a job, a job that I love and, frankly, a job that I need."
Steele said on Cutler's podcast that she received a COVID-19 vaccine only because it was required by ESPN.
Steele stated she was proud to come from a family that was both Black and white, according to the court complaint. Steele recalled her 2014 appearance on The View, where she was questioned why she didn't simply identify as a Black, as Obama did. Despite being reared by his white mother and grandmother, she stated she was amazed that the former president identified completely as Black.
Steele tested positive for COVID-19 just days after the podcast was aired and was benched from the air on Oct. 4, the court filing said, and was told she would have to issue a public apology.
Steele says that ESPN then removed her from "all big event hosting duties," including the New York City Marathon, the Rose Parade, and the ESPNW Summit, as well as neglecting to sanction ESPN colleagues who "publicly abused" her.
Steele claims in the lawsuit that after filing a complaint with ESPN's human resources department in February 2022, she was offered the option to co-host the network's Masters coverage.
The lawsuit also tries to make a contrast between Steele's treatment and that of other ESPN employees who broke network policy but were not disciplined.
The lawsuit claims that "ESPN's inconsistency in how it treated Steele in comparison to her colleagues suggests that Steele was punished not merely for exercising her constitutional right to free expression, but also for the content of her speech." "Steele's employer penalised her in violation of Connecticut state law because she exercised her First Amendment right to voice beliefs that ESPN and Disney disagree with."
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