There seems to be among the political right a sort of target against ESPN and anything owned or controlled by Disney. In Florida Disney is fighting back against the “Don’t say gay” law, and in retaliation Governor Rick DeSantis is trying to take away tax advantages of Disney and its theme parks. Sage Steele who in the last several years has come out a being conservative is suing her employer ESPN, making a claim that ESPN punished her and took her off the air because of comments she made about vaccine mandates.
Steele appeared on Jay Cutler’s podcast called Disney’s vaccine mandate “sick and scary”. On the same podcast she made unflattering comments about former President Barack Obama’s racial identity. Steele commented “I think that’s (that President Obama identifies as black) fascinating considering his black dad was nowhere to be found but his white mom and grandma raised him.”
In Steele’s lawsuit its being alleged that in response to her comments on the podcast, that ESPN retaliated against her by taking away assignments, and did not protect her from ridicule from colleagues. “It’s a knee jerk reaction, ESPN and Disney relied on the misleading characterizations of her comments, bowed to group think and forced Steele to publicly apologize and suspend her for a period of time in October 2021,” a quote from the lawsuit reads.
ESPN has responded with a written statement “Sage remains a valued contributor on some ESPN’s highest profile content, including recent Masters telecasts and anchoring our noon Sportscenter. As a point of fact she was never suspended.”
Despite not agreeing with Sage Steele’s comments or her right leaning views, I do believe in free speech. If she did not want to take a vaccine, or had views against a mandate, she should be able to express those views without being retaliated against or have assignments taken away. Every side of an argument should be allowed to be expressed in the public square. Whether or not a vaccine mandate by an employer is legal is a matter for the courts to decide as that issue has gone back and forth over the last year or so since vaccines were made available to the general public.
In Connecticut where ESPN is based there are First Amendment protections that are stretched out into the private sector which could give Steele’s case a little bit more of a leg to stand on. For her lawsuit to stick she has to prove that her vaccine arguments or comments were about the public interest in the issue and not about her own gripes about the mandate. She would also have to prove that there was an injury caused by ESPN in retaliation, whether it would have been a suspension, a fine or taking away assignments. Steele argues in the suit that she was told that she would be sidelined and taking a break after the comments went viral.
Steele still has two years left on her contract; I do not expect that contract to be renewed. Those who get into political speech tend to not last long at ESPN. Even though their content tends to skew to the left, even when commentators go too far left ESPN has given push back. Lets see how this lawsuit plays out in court and how Steele’s future in sports media evolves.