SportsCenter anchor Sage Steele is suing ESPN for what she claims was illegal retaliation against her for comments she made on Jay Cutler's podcast last year, according to Joe Flint of the Wall Street Journal
The comments in question came last September. Among other things, Steele called ESPN's vaccine mandate "sick," said female reporters dressed a certain way share the blame when athletes make inappropriate comments about them and questioned former President Barack Obama identifying himself as Black "considering his Black dad was nowhere to be found but his white mom and grandma raised him."
The social media backlash was swift, followed by a professional backlash that Steele is reportedly alleging breached her contract and violated her free speech rights.
Steele claims ESPN forced her to apologize for the comments before temporarily suspending her from the air. The apology, which was released by ESPN in October:
"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," Steele said in a statement.
The lawsuit additionally claims ESPN retaliated against her by taking away prime assignments and failing to stop her colleagues from bullying and harassing her, as well as taking action based on "inaccurate third-party accounts" of her comments before reviewing their context. It also said the network's handling of the incident was an example of selective enforcement of a network barring news personnel from speaking out on political or social issues.
From the Journal:
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,” according to the suit, which seeks unspecified damages.
ESPN, which still employs Steele, responded with a brief statement noting Steele's recent work at the Masters and SportsCenter:
In a statement, ESPN said, “Sage remains a valued contributor on some of ESPN’s highest profile content, including the recent Masters telecasts and anchoring our noon SportsCenter.”
It's unclear how many years Steele has remaining on her contract with ESPN, though it's hard to imagine either side being eager at another go-around after all this.