Sage Steele sues ESPN, says 'she was punished for speaking her truth' about COVID vaccines

·4 min read

IU grad Sage Steele is suing ESPN for allegedly violating her free speech rights after comments she made about COVID vaccines during an appearance on Jay Cutler’s podcast.

“Despite fully complying with ESPN's policy, Sage Steele was punished for speaking her truth in violation of freedom of speech protections under Connecticut law and the U.S. constitution," her attorney Bryan Freedman said in a statement. "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. Sage is standing up to corporate America to ensure employees don’t get their rights trampled on or their opinions silenced.”

The lawsuit was filed Thursday. Steele has not asked for specific damages.

More: Could Sage Steele win lawsuit against ESPN? It's complicated. We asked a media law expert.

ESPN's parent company, Walt Disney Co., issued a mandate that all employees must be vaccinated against COVID-19. The longtime ESPN host and reporter told Jay Cutler in a podcast on Sept. 13, 2021 that “I respect everyone's decision. I really do. But to mandate (the COVID vaccine) is sick, and it's scary to me in many ways."

More: Sage Steele apologizes after saying ESPN vaccine mandate was 'sick, scary'

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The lawsuit alleges that media reports “slammed Steele, some misquoting and many taking her comments out of context, calling her comments ‘appalling,’ ‘awful,’ ‘bonkers,’ and ‘nasty,’” and that ESPN forced her to apologize in a “knee-jerk reaction.” The lawsuit alleges that ESPN never listened to Steele’s comments on Cutler’s podcast.

“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.

On Oct. 5, 2021, Steele released a statement saying, "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.”

Sage Steele (photo submitted by ESPN) GENERAL INFORMATION:
Sage Steele (photo submitted by ESPN) GENERAL INFORMATION:

The lawsuit alleges that Steele was forced to issue the apology “under threat of losing her job,” and that she was suspended for two days. ESPN maintains that Steele was never suspended.

The lawsuit alleges that “ESPN and Disney have continued to punish Steele by removing her from prime assignments, including coverage of the New York City Marathon, the Rose Parade, and the 12th Annual ESPNW Summit, which Steele had hosted and emceed since its inception in 2010.”

ESPN released a statement saying that “Sage remains a valued contributor on some of ESPN’s highest profile content, including the recent Masters telecasts and anchoring our noon SportsCenter.”

In February, Steele filed an HR complaint and her attorneys sent a letter to ESPN. The lawsuit alleges that the network offered Steele the opportunity to co-host the network’s Masters Tournament coverage “in a blatant admission of their culpability and prior misconduct and in an attempt to cover up their violation of her rights and to avoid liability.”

In 2017, ESPN released new guidelines for its employees, which, "while allowing for political discussion on the network’s platforms, recommend connecting those comments to sports whenever possible." The lawsuit alleges that, though this policy was the basis for Steele's punishment, ESPN "repeatedly have ignored commentary from other employees – both before and after they penalized Steele for expressing her opinion - that was more political and more controversial than the comments made by Steele, and that in some cases was overtly disrespectful to Steele."

The lawsuit also states that other ESPN employees have criticized the network and its policies, but alleges that they “have faced no repercussions for their actions. It is clear that ESPN selectively enforces its policies based on whether it agrees with the political views of the employees in question.”

The lawsuit says Steele’s rights to free speech were violated “based upon a faulty understanding of her comments and a nonexistent, unenforced workplace policy that serves as nothing more than pretext.”

Steele, 49, has worked at ESPN since 2007 and graduated from IU in 1995 with a bachelor’s degree in sport communication.

Follow IndyStar trending sports reporter Matthew VanTryon on Twitter @MVanTryon and email him story ideas at matthew.vantryon@indystar.com.9568500002

This article originally appeared on Indianapolis Star: Sage Steele sues ESPN, says free speech violated after COVID remarks