NBA reporter Rachel Nichols sparked significant internal turmoil at ESPN after unwittingly including her comment that colleague Maria Taylor moderated coverage of the 2020 NBA final because ESPN “felt the pressure” to be more diverse.
According to a Sunday New York Times report, Nichols, who is white, made comments in July 2020 ahead of the final between the Lakers and Heat, a series that Nichols anticipated and that took place amid nationwide protests against systemic racism and police brutality. ESPN picked Taylor, who is black, for the assignment.
According to The Times, Nichols made the comments in a phone call with Lebron James’ advisor Adam Mendelsohn and his agent Rich Paul. Nichols unwittingly filmed their conversation using company-provided equipment and uploaded it to ESPN’s servers. Dozens of employees were reportedly exposed to the video as part of their regular workflow. At least one person recorded the video with their mobile phone and passed it on to other employees; it finally reached executives within hours.
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“I wish Maria Taylor all the success in the world – she reports on football, she reports on basketball,” said Nichols on the call. “If you have to give her more to do because you are feeling pressure because of your shitty long-term record in terms of diversity – which, by the way, I know personally from the female side – then do it. Just find it somewhere else. You won’t find it from me or take my thing away.
“I just want them to go somewhere else – that’s in my contract, by the way; this job is written on my contract, ”said Nichols Mendelsohn a few minutes later on the call.
ESPN did not punish Nichols for her comments, an action some ESPN staff told The Times was “an active source of pain” and discussion.
Nichols’ comments and ESPN’s refusal to reprimand them created a tense work environment at ESPN in which many black Times staff said it confirmed that many “outwardly supportive whites talk differently behind closed doors.” The Times, which purchased a copy of the video, reports that Mendelsohn also said in the video, “I don’t know. I am exhausted. I have nothing left between Me Too and Black Lives Matter. “
The Times reported that Taylor nearly refused to cover the 2020 final in an email to ESPN executives, including President Jimmy Pitaro. The email is dated about two weeks after Nichols uploaded her conversation.
“I’m not going to call myself a victim, but I have certainly felt bullied and I feel like my complaints were not taken seriously,” Taylor wrote in an email to ESPN executives, including Pitaro. “In fact, after two incidents of racial insensitivity, it was the first time I heard from Human Resources that I asked if I had released Rachel’s tape to the media. I would never do that. “
Taylor reconsidered a few days later, and told ESPN that she would continue hosting “NBA Countdown” during the playoffs while Nichols was on the show. ESPN agreed to the condition, but reportedly immediately violated it by making Nichols appear on the show in brief sections where she did not interact with Taylor.
That setup further added tensions in the 2020-21 NBA season, with Nichols reporting from the sidelines for ESPN’s key games. To keep her and Taylor from interacting on “NBA Countdown,” Nichols’ appearances on the show were taped but shown live. Other segments of sideline reporters have been a mix of live and pre-recorded.
Prior to the 2021 NBA playoffs, ESPN threatened no live performances by supporting cast members if Taylor refused to interact with Nichols, which according to some ESPN staff would have wrongly punished everyone but Nichols to keep her position.
The Times reported that a call from “NBA Countdown” on May 22nd before the show turned bitter, with commentators Jalen Rose, Adrian Wojnarowski and Jay Williams along with several other show staff saying the move benefited Nichols at the expense of others. ESPN’s decision not to let other side reporters appear on the show only affected women of color: Lisa Salters, Cassidy Hubbarth and Malika Andrews, all of whom reportedly received minor assignments. Wojnarowski reportedly jumped in on the call to describe Nichols as a “bad teammate”.
(According to people familiar with the situation, the restrictions were lifted later on the day after Pitaro spoke with Taylor and Wojnarowski – Wojnarowski alone at the time – to see if lifting them would help resolve the issue).
In addition, only one person was specifically punished for Nichols ‘comments: digital video producer Kayla Johnson, who reportedly told ESPN Human Resources that she sent the video of Nichols’ comments to Taylor. She was suspended for two weeks without pay. Johnson recently left ESPN and did not comment on his story to The Times.
Nichols responded to questions from the Times that she “dumped a friend about the ESPN process, not Maria. My own intentions in this conversation and the opinion of those responsible at ESPN are not the sum of what matters here – if Maria found the conversation disturbing, then that was it, and I was the reason for it. “
Nichols also said she tried to apologize to Taylor via text and phone. “Maria chose not to respond to these offers, which is completely fair and a decision I respect.”
“We will of course not comment on the details of a commentary contract,” said Josh Krulewitz, an ESPN spokesman. Krulewitz declined to make Pitaro available for an interview.
Taylor, whose ESPN contract ends on July 20, declined to tell the Times about his story.