Sage Steele and Stephen A. Smith appear to have different perspectives on ESPN’s tolerance of free speech.
Steele recently departed ESPN after settling a lawsuit that been ongoing since April 2022, when she alleged her contract was breached and free speech rights were violated. Smith, meanwhile, routinely reminds everyone that he appears to have no limits on what he can or can’t talk about, despite being an ESPN employee. That includes being able to talk about former ESPN employees who sued the company.
After Steele did her first post-ESPN interview with Megyn Kelly last week, Smith addressed his former colleague’s departure on his podcast. According to Smith, everyone should be able to say everything, pitching ESPN and all companies on a sort of unregulated, Wild West method of governing its employees.
“I think it’s a mistake when a corporation tries to silence anybody,” Smith said. “I think you let everybody speak, that way the company doesn’t get blamed for the positions and individual takes. The individual has to be culpable for the words that we articulate and the impact that it has ultimately on us.
“If I say something and it ultimately costs ESPN dollars and as a result ESPN says, ‘You got to go,’ they’re not saying I have to go because of my politics. They’re saying I have to go because I compromised their bottom line. And I think that’s the position all corporations should take, as opposed to trying to curtail or silence anybody because you think their individual words are going to be a reflection on the whole. It is not, when you let everybody speak.”
Steele sued ESPN after she was “sidelined” for criticizing the company’s COVID-19 vaccine mandate on Jay Cutler’s podcast in Sept. 2021. During the interview with Cutler, Steele called ESPN’s policy “sick and scary,” admitting she reluctantly got vaccinated to keep her job. She also questioned former President Barack Obama identifying as Black when he was raised by his white mother.
Steele believes being temporarily removed from ESPN’s airwaves was a hypocritical move by the company considering other employees have commented on controversial political issues without repercussion. But one of those employees who previously weighed in on controversial political issues without repercussion was Steele herself, having made the same comment about Obama during a 2014 appearance on The View.
Calling ESPN’s vaccine mandate “sick and scary,” however, wasn’t just weighing in on a controversial political issue. It was a very public criticism of her employer, which is something even Smith usually tries to avoid. Smith noted that he has spoken to Steele since her breakup with ESPN and teased that she will be making an upcoming appearance on his podcast.