Sage Steele suing ESPN over benching for vaccine comments

Sage Steele, a star “SportsCenter” anchor for ESPN, is suing the network and parent company Disney over the circumstances surrounding her being sidelined late last year.

In the lawsuit, Steele alleges she was retaliated against over comments she made about the company’s vaccine mandate on Jay Cutler’s podcast last September, violating both her contract and her right to free speech.

Joe Flint of The Wall Street Journal first reported on the lawsuit.

“Sage remains a valued contributor on some of ESPN’s highest profile content, including the recent Masters telecasts and anchoring our noon ‘SportsCenter,’ ” an ESPN spokesperson said in a statement. “As a point of fact, she was never suspended.”

A source with knowledge of ESPN told The Post that Steele will remain on-air amid the lawsuit. Her contract is not up for “a while,” a second source said.

“I work for a company that mandates it and I had until September 30 to get it done or I’m out,” Steele told Cutler, a former NFL quarterback who spent much of his 12-year playing career with the Bears.

Sage Steele has worked at ESPN as a host since 2007.
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“I respect everyone’s decision, I really do, but to mandate it is sick and it’s scary to me in many ways,” Steele said. “I just, I’m not surprised it got to this point, especially with Disney, I mean a global company like that.”

The lawsuit, filed in Connecticut, alleges that Steele was benched by ESPN for the remarks and that the company forced her to apologize.

“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 says.

The suit further alleges that ESPN disciplined Steele 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.”

While Steele would have been off-air for a given amount of time after testing positive for COVID-19, the suit says the company used the words “sidelined” and “taking a break” to describe her on-air absence and refers to these words as “euphemisms” for a suspension.

The suit points to various stories in the press that referred to Steele as being suspended, and said “ESPN did nothing to rebut the widespread reports that it had suspended or otherwise disciplined Steele for her comments, both because those reports were true and because ESPN stood to benefit from the public perception that he had punished Steele for her remarks.”

It also alleges she was retaliated against by losing key assignments and that the network failed to stop colleagues from bullying and harassing her.

Sage Steele
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The suit claims that Steele was removed from assignments such as hosting the NYC Marathon and ESPNW Summit, an event she had emceed since 2010.

The following mentions several instances of colleagues criticizing Steele on-air or on social media. It says that Steele sent ESPN executive Norby Williamson a screenshot of a tweet from SportsCenter anchor Nicole Briscoe, who “retweeted a post from someone who said she hoped ESPN no longer uses Ms. Steele to cover women’s sporting events, with Ms. Briscoe adding, ‘Amen. (Even if it gets me in trouble.) Amen.’ ”

The suit claimed that the tweet remained up three months later.

Ryan Clark, a former Steelers player, allegedly refused to appear on-air with Steele, and according to the suit was not disciplined.

“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. “Sage is standing up to corporate America to ensure employees don’t get their rights trampled on or their opinions silenced.”

The suit claims ESPN “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.”

The lawsuit claims that Steele notified company HR of their wrongdoing this past February, and followed up with a letter from attorneys.

“Tellingly, after months of Defendants withholding prime hosting assignments from Steele as punishment, when they received her complaint and attorney’s letter, they promptly offered her the assignment of co-hosting coverage at The Masters Tournament in a blatant admission of liability and an obvious scheme to try to dodge responsibility,” the suit says.

Steele, 49, has worked at ESPN since 2007. She currently co-hosts the noon edition of “SportsCenter” with Matt Barrie. She has previously anchored “NBA Countdown” and the Scripps National Spelling Bee.


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