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This column originally ran on June 17, 2023. OutKick is re-running as part of our July 4 Best-Of.
ESPN and Disney discriminated against Sage Steele.
The corporation admitted so in offering her $501,000 to settle her lawsuit against the company for violating her First Amendment and Connecticut free-speech rights.
Front Office Sports reported the figure on Monday in an obvious leak from Disney to frame Steele as a greedy wicked witch.
ESPN/Disney took the same approach last summer in a leak to the Washington Post by telling the outlet that Steele receives $3 million a year, the most of any woman at the company.
Yet the leaks, particularly the latest, have hardly derailed the perception of Steele’s case. As per a statement from her attorney Bryan Freedman, the leaks have only revealed the efforts to buy Steele’s silence:
“Disney and ESPN clearly admit their liability by offering to pay Sage Steele more than half a million dollars for taking away her right to free speech. The offer misses the point. Disney cannot purchase their employee’s constitutional rights no matter how powerful they think they are.”
“How about apologizing and treating people fairly?” Freedman adds. “Let me put it this way, would Disney be willing to accept money from the state of Florida and Governor DeSantis in exchange for being silenced? Why the double standard?”
Steele’s lawyer references a lawsuit Disney filed in federal court last month that claims Gov. Ron DeSantis retaliated against the company for opposing the Florida Parental Rights in Education Act, erroneously dubbed “Don’t Say Gay.”
Disney retaliated against Steele and then filed a lawsuit that DeSantis retaliated against it.
For a recap, Steele appeared on a podcast with former NFL QB Jay Cutler in 2021. Cutler asked her about vaccine mandates and having to check black or white on the census despite being bi-racial.
“I work for a company that mandates it and I had until September 30 to get it done or I’m out,” Steele answered. “I respect everyone’s decision, I really do, but to mandate it is sick and it’s scary to me in many ways,” said Steele.
“If they make you choose a race, what are you gonna put? Well, both,” Steele added. “Barack Obama chose black, and he’s biracial … congratulations to the President, that’s his thing. I think that’s fascinating considering his Black dad is nowhere to be found but his white mom and grandma raised him, but OK. 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.”
Steele’s comments were hardly on the fringe. She told Cutler she respects those who received the vaccine but opposed mandates that forced what’s essentially a gene therapeutic onto healthy adults.
She also said she didn’t want to choose between whether she identifies with her black and white family members.
Yet her remarks drew the ire of failed former ESPN personalities like Jemele Hill and Keith Olbermann. ESPN caved to the pressure, suspended Steele (in the guise of euphemisms), forced her to apologize, and issued a statement condemning her for broaching topics outside of sports.
Disney expected Steele to receive her punishment and mope quietly in fear of further repercussions. ESPN had hoped she wouldn’t make public the double standard instilled across the network.
But Steele did notice. And she didn’t mope quietly.
Rather, she filed a lawsuit documenting the company’s selective treatment of those who defy ESPN’s supposed “ban on discussing politics.”
The company punished Steele for answering a question about herself while it permits her colleagues to make a mockery of the same “stick to sports” edict.
Shall we update the list?
Before and after ESPN demanded Steele atone for her comments, the network allowed the following:
• Bomani Jones to discuss Donald Trump’s arrest on his ESPN podcast.
• J.A. Adande to downplay the genocide against Uyghur Muslims in the Xinjiang region of China by saying red state voting laws are just as harsh.
• Jemele Hill to call then-President Donald Trump a “white supremacist.”
• Dan Le Batard to call ESPN’s no-politics ban “cowardly” while on ESPN Radio.
• Elle Duncan to interrupt a college basketball game to express her opposition to a bill prohibiting the sexual indoctrination of third graders.
• Elle Duncan to ESPN’s studio, equipment, and producers to demand that “girl dads” speak up so that their daughters can have abortions in all 50 states.
• Max Kellerman to degrade Donald Trump supporters as “susceptible to very low-quality information and easy to propagandize and almost immune to facts.”
• Mark Jones to falsely accuse white police officers of trying to shoot him and share tweets calling Ron DeSantis a member of the KKK.
• Malika Andrews to use the NBA Draft show to protest the Supreme Court ruling in favor of giving abortion rights back to the states.
• Accused wife-beater Howard Bryant published an anti-America, January 6-focused, race-baiting column on the ESPN homepage on July 4.
ESPN did not address any of those incidents. Nor did head of PR Chris LaPlaca issue a statement condemning their comments, as he did to Steele.
“At ESPN, we embrace different points of view – dialogue and discussion makes this place great. That said, we expect that those points of view be expressed respectfully, in a manner consistent with our values, and in line with our internal policies,” LaPlaca said in a statement he released to Sports Business Journal regarding Steele.
In short, downplaying genocide and calling half of the country susceptible to low-quality information is consistent with and in line with ESPN’s internal policies.
However, answering a question about vaccine coercion and being bi-racial is not.
The disparate treatment between ESPN’s only openly conservative host and its slew of liberal hosts is perhaps what Stephen A. Smith referred to when he questioned the network’s ban on discussing politics last summer.
“You can’t let one person get away with [talking politics at ESPN] and not let the other person get away with it,” Smith said. “The rules have to be for everybody.”
The lawsuit also revealed ESPN did not punish fragile rats like Ryan Clark and Nicole Briscoe who, respectively, refused to appear on-air with, and liked negative tweets about Steele following her punishment.
ESPN can hardly deny its disproportionate treatment of Steele. Thus, it hoped to shush her with half a million dollars.
But notice the lawsuit doesn’t name a particular figure over which Steele is suing. The lawsuit is not a money grab.
If Steele were in it for the money, she would have shut up like the good little boys and girls and collected millions of dollars for the remainder of her career.
Instead, Steele jeopardized her income, her future, her family’s future by taking on the most powerful media company in the country.
Her efforts are admirable. The consequences of her lawsuit could trickle up and down the industry.
Her lawsuit brings to light the double standards and cowardice that infest corporate America. Frightened weasels with executive roles unilaterally decide which subjective political and social stances are permitted and prohibited.
Follow their lead and they promote you. Offer a counter perspective and they bury you.
If you fall into the latter category, Steele filed her lawsuit for you.
Steele is the only openly conservative employee at the network. Though she’s far from the only conservative. The others self-censor at the risk of retaliation.
Steele filed her lawsuit for them, too.
Never before has the intersection of sports and politics been more pervasive. Sports is an epicenter of the trans movement, seeing men who call themselves women infringe on female sports.
A Gallup poll this month revealed that 69 percent of Americans believe transgender athletes should only be allowed to play on sports teams that match their birth gender. Parents of both political affiliations understand females should not compete physically against males.
Yet at ESPN, Lia Thomas is honored and Riley Gaines is frowned upon.
And when host Sam Ponder spoke up in support of keeping female sports female, USA Today called her a “bigot,” her colleagues liked tweets calling her the same, and ESPN offered no support.
Steele filed her lawsuit for Ponder.
She filed a lawsuit for her colleagues who understand the consequences of dismissing gender.
She filed her lawsuit for the parents afraid to speak out against their daughter having to shower next to a “female” with a penis.
Sage Steele filed her lawsuit in honor of free speech, for the voices silenced and discriminated against across corporate America.
That’s worth more than $501,000.