ESPN host Sage Steele sues network claiming she’s being punished for divisive views on Obama and vaccines

The ESPN host alleges she was kept off top assignments in the aftermath of a controversial interview on a podcast last fall

Johanna Chisholm
Thursday 28 April 2022 16:45 BST
ESPN host pulled off air after rant about Barack Obama’s race and vaccine mandates

Sage Steele, the ESPN presenter who faced backlash last fall after she delivered a controversial rant about Barack Obama’s race and vaccine mandates being “sick” on a podcast, is suing the network over allegations of sidelining her from top assignments and violating her First Amendment rights in the aftermath.

In the fall of 2021, the ESPN host went on Jay Cutler’s Uncut podcast and railed off about vaccines, saying that while she respected those who took the jabs to prevent infection from Covid, “to mandate it is sick, and it is scary to me in many ways”.

In the same episode, she also suggested that the former US president should not not identify as Black because he was raised by a white mother and grandmother.

“I’m like, ‘Well, congratulations to the president. That’s his thing.’ I think that’s fascinating considering his Black dad was nowhere to be found, but his white mum and grandma raised him, but hey, you do you. I’m going to do me,” she said on Mr Cutler’s podcast.

There was swift condemnation of Ms Steele’s comments online as well as a professional admonishment from ESPN, which forms the basis for the SportsCenter anchor’s claims that her contract was breached as well as First Amendment rights trampled, The Wall Street Journal first reported.

In the lawsuit, the sports presenter argues that her free speech rights were violated after the network allegedly forced her to issue an apology over the comments made on the former ​​quarterback’s podcast.

The apology, released in October by the network, read: “I know my recent comments created controversy for the company, and I apologise. 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.”

Before the podcast’s release, Ms Steele was a lead anchor for the network’s flagship show, SportsCenter, but in the aftermath, she claims, she was intentionally kept off top assignments, an act she considers was deliberate retaliation in the lawsuit.

She continues to host an afternoon broadcast of SportsCenter.

Additionally, Ms Steele claims the network did not protect her from harassment and bullying from her colleagues and that the overall handling of her speaking out on political and social issues on the podcast, she claims, is evidence of selective enforcement by the network.

“[ESPN] violated Connecticut law and Steele’s rights to free speech based upon a faulty understanding of her comments and nonexistent, unenforced workplace policy that serves nothing more than pretexts,” the lawsuit states, according to the Journal’s reporting.

ESPN host pulled off air after rant about Barack Obama’s race and vaccine mandates

The network, which created a new guideline in 2017 that asked employees not to comment on political matters unless it had a direct tieback to sports coverage, is being challenged in the lawsuit over a Connecticut law that states that companies are not permitted to punish employees for exercising their First Amendment rights.

Ms Steele contends that since the Uncut podcast interview was not related to her employer nor did it have any impact on her fulfilling her work duties, she was there as a private citizen, and any consequences she faced from her employer after the interview would be thrown in the face of that specific Connecticut law.

Ms Steele, who has also previously drawn criticism for other controversial views, such as her All Lives Matter stance, has worked with the network for 15 years and it is unclear how many years remain on her contract.

In response to the lawsuit, ESPN said in a prepared statement to The Independent: “Sage remains a valued contributor on some of ESPN’s highest profile content, including the recent Masters telecasts and anchoring our noon SportsCenter.”

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