Former English football player and BBC presenter Gary Lineker outside his home in London on March 12.HENRY NICHOLLS/Reuters

The BBC is facing a staff mutiny and allegations it stifled free speech after managers suspended top sportscaster Gary Lineker for criticizing the government’s new migration policy.

The British broadcaster is best known for its global news coverage but on weekends it devotes much of its television and radio schedule to sports. Nearly all of that programming – including half a dozen shows and hours of soccer coverage – had to be cancelled or stripped down this weekend because dozens of on-air personalities refused to work out of solidarity with Mr. Lineker, a former soccer player who has hosted BBC TV’s flagship Match of the Day show since 1999.

Match of the Day normally runs for 90 minutes but on Saturday it was pared back to a 20-minute package of game highlights without any commentary. The BBC World Service also had to adjust its weekend schedule along with BBC Scotland.

“I’m sorry audiences have been affected and they haven’t got the programming,” said BBC’s director general Tim Davie. “As a keen sports fan, I know to miss programming is a real blow and I’m sorry about that. We are working very hard to resolve this situation and make sure we get output on air.”

The turmoil began on Tuesday when Mr. Lineker criticized the British government’s new measures to crack down on illegal immigration through increased detentions and deportations. “This is just an immeasurably cruel policy directed at the most vulnerable people in language that is not dissimilar to that used by Germany in the 30s, and I’m out of order?” Mr. Lineker said in a tweet.

The comment caused an uproar among government ministers and Conservative MPs. Home Secretary Suella Braverman called the tweet offensive and noted that her husband was Jewish. “My children are therefore directly descended from people who were murdered in gas chambers during the Holocaust,” she told a BBC podcast. “To kind of throw out those kind of flippant analogies diminishes the unspeakable tragedy that millions of people went through.”

Mr. Lineker stood by his remarks but, on Friday, the BBC said he had breached the corporation’s guidelines on impartiality. “The BBC has decided that he will step back from presenting Match of the Day until we’ve got an agreed and clear position on his use of social media,” the broadcaster added.

That decision led to a public outcry and a backlash inside the BBC. The co-hosts of Match of the Day – former players Ian Wright and Alan Shearer – announced on Saturday that they wouldn’t appear on the program without Mr. Lineker. Within hours, presenters on other shows cancelled their appearances, forcing the BBC to replace nearly two full days of programming on TV and radio.

Labour Party Leader Keir Starmer accused the BBC of bowing to pressure from the government. “It is not impartial for BBC to cave in to Tory MPs complaining about Gary Lineker; it’s the opposite of impartial,” Mr. Starmer said on Saturday. “They got this one badly wrong and now they’re very, very exposed.”

He pointed out that BBC chairman Richard Sharp has faced calls to resign after revelations that he helped arrange a loan of up to £800,000 – or $1.3-million – for then-prime minister Boris Johnson in 2020. Mr. Sharp was appointed to the BBC role in February, 2021, by Mr. Johnson. Mr. Sharp has denied a conflict of interest and said he simply facilitated the loan. But Mr. Starmer and others have said that if Mr. Lineker is dismissed by the BBC for breaching impartiality rules, Mr. Sharp should be fired as well.

Prime Minister Rishi Sunak defended the government’s migration policy and said it was up to the BBC to resolve the issue with Mr. Lineker. “As Prime Minister, I have to do what I believe is right, respecting that not everyone will always agree,” he said Saturday. “I hope that the current situation between Gary Lineker and the BBC can be resolved in a timely manner, but it is rightly a matter for them, not the government.”

Mr. Lineker, 62, is no ordinary TV personality. He was a star player in England, Spain and Japan, and a standout with England’s national team. After retiring in 1994, he turned to broadcasting. He became a fixture on Match of The Day and has led the BBC’s coverage of other events, including the World Cup. He’s also the BBC’s highest paid staffer and earned £1.35-million last year – or $2.25-million.

On Sunday, Mr. Lineker declined to comment on whether he would be back on the air next weekend. “I can’t say anything at the moment,” he told reporters outside his home.