It’s not every day that a corporation is sued by its employee while the employee still works there, especially when that individual is one of the faces of the network. But that is the case for ESPN anchor Sage Steele.
In April 2022, she filed a lawsuit against the network after an incident where she talked about getting the COVID-19 vaccination on former NFL quarterback Jay Cutler’s podcast, Uncut with Jay Cutler in 2021. Steele did agree to the vaccination but told Cutler that she felt that she was forced into a vaccine she didn’t want to continue her employment at the network.
“It’s scary to me in many ways,” she told Cutler. “I respect everyone’s decisions, I really do,” Steele told Cutler, after laughing when he called her the “Candace Owens” of ESPN. “But to mandate it is sick, it’s scary. But I have a job I love and frankly, a job that I need, but I love it.”
She added, “I’m not surprised it got to this point, especially with Disney. I mean it’s a global company.”
In the same interview, Steele opined about former president Obama’s choice to identify as Black on a hypothetical Census form, considering he was raised by his white family and that his Black father was “nowhere to be found.” She said she would identify as both but didn’t believe that was possible. (People have been able to identify as more than one race since the 2000 Census.)
As for Obama’s father, Steele was accurate that he didn’t raise him but left out the context. Obama’s parents split up when he was a child, and the senior Obama moved back to his home country of Kenya, dying in a car accident in 1982. Barack’s 1995 book Dreams of My Father about his search for connection to a man he never knew eventually became a bestseller.
Steele’s comments rankled people, including her co-workers, but she says Disney particularly took exception to what she said about the vaccine. On September 29, 2021, when the podcast aired, vaccines had been widely available since the beginning of the year. Vaccine mandates were widespread as a condition for employment, particularly in corporate America and in municipal and federal jobs.
Twitter flamed Steele and she alleges ESPN suspended her in October due to the backlash despite a public apology. Per Variety, when she returned she was also pulled from her higher-profile assignments like the Rose Bowl and the New York City Marathon.
Steele says a different standard was applied to her and that she is entitled to her freedom of speech. Her lawsuit says that in Connecticut where ESPN’s headquarters is located, a private employee can’t be punished for exercising their free speech, whether at work or not. She called ESPN‘s alleged suspension “retaliatory.” She also says that despite politically-oriented comments by other anchors they were not disciplined in the same way.
A factor in Steele’s case is that ESPN may have moved based on the backlash from her own colleagues. Steele has long been an unpopular figure with other Black employees at the network despite spending 17 years there.
In 2022, she said Black ESPN co-workers excluded her from a 2020 special on race. And when ESPN anchor Ryan Clark asked for her to be replaced after the Cutler comments because he didn’t want to appear on the air with her and was refused, he chose not to do the segment but was not penalized.
While Steele argued that the “suspension” was retaliatory, ESPN denies she was suspended at all. On Oct. 3, 2021, Steele tested positive for COVID which would have meant she would have been taken off the air due to COVID protocols anyway. At the time, ESPN acknowledged the backlash, saying they were in “private conversations” with Steele but didn’t say she was suspended.
Steele’s lawyer Bryan Freedman, who is also Tucker Carlson and Don Lemon’s lawyer, is now in mediation behind the scenes as Steele’s contract, which expires in 2024, has no arbitration clause, Variety reports.
But Disney is fighting its own free speech battle with Florida Governor Ron DeSantis. The company canceled a billion-dollar project in the state of Florida to build a complex for a portion of its technical team. Two thousand six-figure jobs went with it. They are now embroiled in a lawsuit Disney filed in May that alleges that DeSantis retaliated against them by signing legislation that restricts their ability to do business after the company’s public opposition to Florida’s controversial “Don’t Say Gay” law.
So basically, Steele, an employee of a Disney company, is suing Disney over something that Disney is suing DeSantis for. At issue is how free is freedom of speech.
“I wholeheartedly agree with Disney’s position that in America, the government cannot punish you for speaking your mind,” Steele said in a statement. “In my opinion, it begins and ends with diversity of thought. We must fight to preserve that fundamental constitutional right.”
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