Longtime ESPN anchor Sage Steele has filed a lawsuit against the network and its parent company, Disney, for allegedly retaliating against her following comments she made about COVID-19 vaccine mandates and former President Barack Obama's racial identity during a podcast interview.
In her lawsuit, Steele claims ESPN and Disney breached her contract and violated her speech rights by sidelining her and failing to stop colleagues from disparaging her over the remarks.
The suit was first reported by the Wall Street Journal.
Steele — who has worked as an anchor for ESPN since 2007 — came under fire after an interview with former NFL quarterback Jay Cutler on his podcast, "Uncut with Jay Cutler," in September, when she criticized Disney's strong-arming over the vaccine.
"I didn't want to do it," she told Cutler. "But I work for a company that mandates it, and I had until Sept. 30 to get it done, or I'm out."
"I respect everyone's decision, I really do, but to mandate it is sick, and it's scary to me in many ways," she added. "But I have a job, a job that I love and, frankly, a job that I need."
Steele also criticized former President Barack Obama's decision to identify as a black man even though he, like her, is biracial.
"Well, congratulations to the president, that's his thing," Steele said in the podcast. "I think that's fascinating considering his black dad is nowhere to be found, but his white mom and grandma raised him, but OK. You do you. I'm gonna do me."
Front Office Sports reported in October that Steele had been removed from the air by ESPN over the comments, and Steele was also required to issue a public apology. Around the same time, she tested positive for COVID-19, resulting in her missing "SportsCenter" for one week. Steele also was pulled from hosting the espnW: Women + Sports Summit.
"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 alleges, according to the New York Post.
It goes on to say that 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."
In a statement, Steele's lawyer, Bryan Freedman, said, "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."
ESPN responded to news of the lawsuit with a statement of its own.
"Sage remains a valued contributor on some of ESPN’s highest profile content, including the recent Masters telecasts and anchoring our noon 'SportsCenter,'" a spokesperson said. "As a point of fact, she was never suspended."
Steele is expected to remain on air while the lawsuit goes through the legal system.