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ESPN’s Sage Steele sues network, claims it sidelined her over vaccine comments

Sage Steele reads notes on a break while anchoring SportsCenter in 2018. (Yana Paskova/For The Washington Post)
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Sage Steele, a prominent ESPN personality and “SportsCenter” host, sued the sports network and its parent company, Disney, alleging her right to free speech was violated and she was retaliated against for comments she made on a podcast last year.

Last fall, Steele appeared on the show of former NFL quarterback Jay Cutler and called Disney’s vaccine mandate “sick” and “scary.” She also contrasted her own racial identity, which she said was biracial, with former president Barack Obama identifying as Black.

“I think that’s fascinating considering his Black dad was nowhere to be found but his White mom and grandma raised him,” she said. “But, hey, you do you. I’m going to do me.”

In the lawsuit, Steele alleged that in response to those comments, ESPN stripped her of assignments and didn’t protect her from harassment from colleagues who criticized her on social media. Another declined to appear on air with her, she alleged.

“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 lawsuit reads.

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

The news of the suit was first reported by the Wall Street Journal. Steele hosted “SportsCenter” on Thursday afternoon. She is represented by Bryan Freedman, a Los Angeles lawyer who represented Megyn Kelly and Chris Cuomo in their high-profile exits from NBC and CNN, respectively.

According to two people with knowledge of her contract, Steele, 49, has more than two years remaining on her deal at ESPN. She joined ESPN in 2007.

The lawsuit, multiple legal observers said, could pose a compelling legal question because of a quirk in Connecticut law. Statute 3151Q, which Steele’s suit cites, extends the protections of the First Amendment to the private sector.

“If Sage were a New Jersey employee working for a private employer, she wouldn’t be able to claim that she was fired or disciplined in violation of her First Amendment rights, which here are speech,” said Richard Hayber, a partner at plaintiff-side employment firm Hayber, McKenna and Dinsmore LLC. “But in Connecticut, she can.”

For her speech to be protected under the statute, Hayber said, Steele will have to prove to a judge or jury that her comments about Disney’s vaccine mandate were a matter of general public interest and not simply complaints about her own situation.

“To me, vaccine safety is a matter of public concern,” Hayber added.

Steele also must prove that she suffered discipline, as the statute states, though the term is not specifically defined. Steele is not claiming any monetary damages, and ESPN denied she was suspended. Steele argues in the suit that she was told by superiors that she would be “sidelined” and “taking a break” after the comments aired and that she did not make a scheduled appearance at an ESPN conference.

Stephen Aronson, a Connecticut lawyer at firm Robinson & Cole who has defended a number of freedom of speech cases, said he was skeptical of Steele’s case because of what Steele will have to prove: that her speech is protected, that she suffered adverse job action because of that speech and that the speech did not materially interfere with her job performance.

“She will have a difficult burden proving all of those elements,” Aronson said. “They could all be contested.”