Just days before the 2021 NBA Finals tips off, ESPN has seen an explosive controversy made public stemming from events that occurred at last year’s championship involving two of the network’s stars, Rachel Nichols and Maria Taylor.
Sunday’s New York Times featured an expansive story from Kevin Draper about comments made privately by Nichols about Taylor being picked to host the network’s NBA Finals coverage last season. A recording of a conversation Nichols had reveals that The Jump host thought Taylor was picked to anchor Finals coverage instead of her because the network was “feeling pressure” about its “crappy longtime record on diversity” and not on merit.
“I wish Maria Taylor all the success in the world — she covers football, she covers basketball,” Nichols said in July 2020. “If you need to give her more things to do because you are feeling pressure about your crappy longtime record on diversity — which, by the way, I know personally from the female side of it — like, go for it. Just find it somewhere else. You are not going to find it from me or taking my thing away.”
The conversation was apparently recorded while Nichols was in quarantine in Florida ahead of entering the NBA’s Orlando bubble at Disney World. As Draper explained, a camera she used to continue appearing on ESPN during the quarantine period was apparently left on, with the recording getting uploaded to ESPN’s servers and discovered by someone working there. Part of that audio conversation between Nichols and a high-powered advisor, Adam Mendelsohn, was shared by the Times on Sunday after making its way around the network internally.
What resulted has been a nearly year-long simmering controversy, one that’s impacted the network’s NBA coverage as well as a contract dispute between it and Taylor. Her current deal reportedly ends in the middle of this year’s NBA Finals, which begin on Tuesday. The Times piece details how the audio leaked and the fallout it created, with ESPN president Jimmy Pitaro trying to diffuse the situation.
At one point, members of the NBA Countdown program debated whether they would appear on the program at all during this postseason. And the incident reportedly confirmed to several people of color in the organization that some were saying different things about diversity privately than they were in public.
“Multiple Black ESPN employees said they told one another after hearing the conversation that it confirmed their suspicions that outwardly supportive white people talk differently behind closed doors.”
— Carrington Harrison (@cdotharrison) July 4, 2021
The piece also gave context to an internal tug of war between Nichols and Taylor that followed, as the two were kept away from each other on air. Part of that included new rules put in place to keep sideline reporters off of The Jump, another NBA-centric show that Nichols hosted. That led to another lengthy internal debate with some notable names at ESPN at odds with one another.
On the preshow call involving the stars of the show and production staff in both Los Angeles and New York, Taylor insisted to an executive that she be able to conduct live interviews with sideline reporters. She also brought up the recorded phone conversation. Wojnarowski jumped in and called Nichols a bad teammate. Rose said that ESPN had asked a lot from Black employees over the past year, but that he and other Black employees would extend their credibility to the company no longer.
Taylor, whom executives had asked numerous times to change her interactions with Nichols, said that the only people punished by ESPN’s actions were women of color: Johnson, herself and the three sideline reporters — Lisa Salters, Cassidy Hubbarth and Andrews — who received lesser assignments so that Nichols could have the lead sideline reporter role and now were not being allowed to appear on the show live.
There’s a lot of details in the lengthy piece, which is a must read for sports fans even remotely curious about what’s happening at the biggest sports network on the planet. No one looks particularly positive in what’s clearly a complex reckoning with workplace relations, race, sex, and a very competitive work environment. There are a lot of individual moments that went viral in their own right on social media in the wake of the piece’s publication that, even with context, aren’t particularly postive for anyone.
In a recording of the video obtained by The New York Times, Nichols and Mendelsohn paused for a moment during the conversation after Nichols said she planned to wait for ESPN’s next move. Mendelsohn, who is white, then said: “I don’t know. I’m exhausted. Between Me Too and Black Lives Matter, I got nothing left.” Nichols then laughed.
Mendelsohn, throughout the conversation, strategized with Nichols about how she should respond to ESPN. “Be careful because that place is a snake pit,” he said. They considered a move that Mendelsohn described as “baller” but “hard to pull off”: telling Pitaro and others that having two women competing over the same job was a sign of ESPN’s wider shortcomings with female employees.
Nichols’ comments frame herself as “a victim of them trying to play catch-up for the same damage that affected me in the first place.” But the Times reported that Nichols did not receive any punishment from ESPN for the incident. In fact, apparently the only person to see discipline stemming from this controversy was a Black staffer who admitted to ESPN HR they sent the video to Taylor.
Now that this long-running controversy has been made public in a big way, it remains to be seen how ESPN’s coverage is impacted. But it will certainly bring new context to the drama taking place before the games even start on ABC later this week.