Sage Steele Sues ESPN After Benching for Comments About “Sick” Vaccine Mandate and Obama’s Race

Steele claims the network violated her First Amendment rights and unlawfully retaliated by forcing her to apologize for the remarks

Sage Steele presents opening remarks at the espnW Summit in 2018. The ESPN anchor recently sued the Worldwide Leader for sidelining her after her own comments about Barack Obama's race and COVID-19 vaccine mandates.
Sage Steele presents opening remarks at the espnW Summit in 2018.
Meg Oliphant/Getty

ESPN anchor Sage Steele is suing the Worldwide Leader in sports news for allegedly violating her First Amendment rights to free speech and unlawfully retaliating by forcing her to apologize for remarks she made on a podcast about the COVID-19 vaccination mandate and former President Barack Obama’s race.

Steele, who has had her issues with ESPN in the past, took some forced time off and apologized in October after calling ESPN parent company Disney’s vaccine mandate “sick” and “scary” while discussing it with on-the-record anti-vaxxer and ex-NFL quarterback Jay Cutler. During her discussion with Cutler on his podcast, the 49-year-old also discussed Obama’s racial identity and speculated he would identify as Black while filling out the U.S. Census because biracial is not an option.

“Congratulations to the president, that’s his thing,” Steele said. “I think that’s fascinating considering his Black dad is nowhere to be found but his white mom and grandma raised him, but okay. You do you. I’m gonna do me. Listen, I’m pretty sure my white mom was there when I was born. And my white family loves me as much as my Black family.”

Given a short benching following her remarks, Steele also issued what she now calls a “humiliating” apology at the time. “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,” she wrote.

Now, in her lawsuit, Steele is claiming that her apology was forced and that ESPN violated “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.” Per The Wall Street Journal, the policy mentioned in the suit “bars news personnel from taking positions on political or social issues,” but Steele claims it is only selectively enforced.

“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,” according to the suit.

The suit, which is seeking unspecified punitive and compensatory damages due to lost revenue and business opportunities, also alleges ESPN took its actions based on “inaccurate third-party accounts of Steele’s comments, and that the network did not immediately review the actual comments or the context in which they were made.”

Per Steele’s lawyer Bryan Freedman, his client is “standing up to corporate America to ensure employees don’t get their rights trampled on or their opinions silenced.”

In a response, ESPN claimed Steele and her opinions had not been muzzled. “Sage remains a valued contributor on some of ESPN’s highest-profile content, including the recent Masters telecasts and anchoring our noon SportsCenter,” the network said in a statement. “As a point of fact, she was never suspended.”

Regardless of what happens with the lawsuit, a buyout for Steele certainly could be on the way.

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