ESPN Responded After SportsCenter's Sage Steele Filed Lawsuit Against The Network And Walt Disney Co.

Sage Steele hosting talk show Up Close
(Image credit: ESPN)

For a time, one of the central anchors that SportsCenter viewers would see when tuning into ESPN each evening was Sage Steele, though that hasn’t entirely been the case in more recent months. Though Steele does still head up the noontime SportsCenter broadcast, she believes that the network unfairly demoted her due to comments she’s made on a 2021 podcast. To the point where the on-air personality filed a lawsuit against both ESPN and its parent company Walt Disney Co. over an alleged violation of free speech. The media company didn’t take long before responding to the lawsuit in a way that didn’t directly respond to much of the lawsuit’s claims.

According to the Wall Street Journal, ESPN issued a statement after the suit was filed in Connecticut, where the network is centered, which said:

Sage remains a valued contributor on some of ESPN’s highest profile content, including the recent Masters telecasts and anchoring our noon SportsCenter. As a point of fact, she was never suspended.

Though the anchor may not have been suspended or fired outright — her absence from television soon after her controversial comments went public was due to her testing positive for COVID-19 — Steele alleges that she was treated unfairly by those at the network following her appearance on Jay Cutler’s podcast Uncut with Jay Cutler in September 2021. Specifically, the lawsuit states ESPN is responsible for a breach of her contract, and that it violated her free-speech rights.

During her guest spot on Uncut with Jay Cutler, Sage Steele made several comments that drew widespread criticisms, such as calling ESPN’s vaccine mandate “sick,” while also questioning former President Barack Obama calling himself Black instead of biracial. (She also claimed that women who get lewd comments about their office outfits knew what they were doing when they put the outfit on.) The comments were slammed by sports journalists, among others, with former SportsCenter anchor Jemele Hill being quite vocal at the time.

ESPN execs, which haven’t always had the smoothest relationships with female on-air personalities, made Steele send out a public apology for her comments, but even after that, the anchor claims she was looked over regarding high-profile assignments. At this time, it’s unclear what kind of damages the anchor is looking to receive, nor how a perceived lack of airtime will correlate to a financial sum. 

Part of her lawsuit’s push is to shine a light on ESPN’s “rule” that forbids its employees from getting opinionated about non-sports topics on social media and other public forums. In the filing, Steele and her legal team shared examples of coworkers who reportedly did not receive any sort of punishment after sharing their own political statements. In Steele’s viewpoint, because Uncut with Jay Cutler isn’t affiliated with the network in any way shape or form, and because she wasn’t representing ESPN on the whole, her comments on the podcast should be viewed as those made by a private citizen.

It’s unclear how this situation will be handled, though judging from ESPN’s statement, nobody there seems extremely eager to excise Sage Steele entirely, at least not on a public stage. While waiting to see how things go, check out some of the best 30 for 30 documentaries you can currently watch on ESPN+, and stay up to date with everything hitting the small screen soon with our 2022 TV premiere schedule.

Nick Venable
Assistant Managing Editor

Nick is a Cajun Country native and an Assistant Managing Editor with a focus on TV and features. His humble origin story with CinemaBlend began all the way back in the pre-streaming era, circa 2009, as a freelancing DVD reviewer and TV recapper.  Nick leapfrogged over to the small screen to cover more and more television news and interviews, eventually taking over the section for the current era and covering topics like Yellowstone, The Walking Dead and horror. Born in Louisiana and currently living in Texas — Who Dat Nation over America’s Team all day, all night — Nick spent several years in the hospitality industry, and also worked as a 911 operator. If you ever happened to hear his music or read his comics/short stories, you have his sympathy.