Sage Steele is suing her longtime employer, ESPN, alleging the network is violating her First Amendment right to free speech, even though Steele has never been suspended or disciplined by the company for anything she’s said.
The SportsCenter anchor has made a point of airing her conservative views in media appearances outside of her employer’s platform. In one appearance on former NFL quarterback Jay Cutler’s podcast last year, Steele, who identifies as biracial, questioned why Barack Obama identifies as Black and blamed women working in sports media for their own sexual harassment.
She’s also criticized Black athletes for protesting against police brutality and thought missing her flight because of protests over ex-president Donald Trump’s Muslim ban was just a bridge too far. In other words, it’s unlikely she’s ever met an anti-Black or right wing talking point she wasn’t willing to parrot, whether she actually believes it or just in the name of “free speech” or contrarianism.
Well, after the Cutler podcast, it seemed ESPN had enough; the network’s brass had issued an edict that its on-air talent shouldn’t make political statements that aren’t connected to a sports story. When Steele vanished for awhile last year, it appeared ESPN was using her recuperation from a Covid-19 infection to sideline her from hosting duties although it maintained Steele has never been suspended. (Full disclosure–Steele is a former colleague from my time as an ESPN senior editor from 2011-2013).
In her lawsuit, Steele now says that the network’s treatment of her represented “selective enforcement” of that policy against political talking points, according to the Wall Street 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 responded to the suit in the Journal by noting that Steele remains on the network, anchoring SportsCenter at noon and recently hosted the network’s coverage of the Masters golf tournament.