NBA reporter Rachel Nichols has created a significant internal conflict on ESPN after she unknowingly recorded herself commenting that her co-worker Maria Taylor hosted coverage of the 2020 NBA Finals because ESPN was “feeling pressure” to be more diverse.
According to a Sunday report from The New York Times, Nichols, who is white, made remarks in July 2020 before the Finals between the Lakers and Heat, a series that Nichols hoped to cover and that took place amid nationwide protests against systemic racism and police brutality. ESPN named Taylor, who is Black, for the assignment.
According to The Times, Nichols made the comments in a phone call with Lebron James’s adviser, Adam Mendelsohn, and Lebron James’s agent, Rich Paul. Nichols unknowingly videotaped their conversation using company-provided equipment, uploading their conversation to ESPN’s servers. Dozens of employees reportedly came into contact with the video as part of their regular workflow. At least one person recorded the video with their cell phone and shared it with other employees; it finally reached executives in a matter of hours.
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“I wish Maria Taylor all the success in the world – she covers soccer, she covers basketball,” Nichols said on the call. “If you need to give her more to do because you feel pressured by your shitty history in diversity, which, by the way, I know personally from the feminine side, do it. Find it elsewhere. You will not find it or take it away from me.
“I just want them to go somewhere else, by the way, it’s in my contract; This job is on my written contract, ”Nichols told Mendelsohn a few minutes later on the call.
ESPN did not punish Nichols for his comments, an action that some ESPN employees told The Times was “an active source of pain” and discussion.
Nichols’ comments and ESPN’s refusal to reprimand her created a tense work environment at ESPN, with many black employees telling The Times that they confirmed that many “seemingly supportive white people speak differently behind closed doors.” The Times, which acquired a copy of the video, reports that Mendelsohn in the video also said: “I don’t know. I’m tired. Between Me Too and Black Lives Matter, I have nothing left. “
The Times reported that Taylor nearly refused to continue coverage of the 2020 Finals in an email to ESPN executives, including President Jimmy Pitaro. The email is dated about two weeks after Nichols uploaded their conversation.
“I will not call myself a victim, but I have certainly felt a victim and I do not feel that my complaints have been taken seriously,” Taylor wrote in an email to ESPN executives, including Pitaro. “In fact, the first time I heard from Human Resources after two incidents of racial insensitivity was to ask if I leaked Rachel’s tape to the media. I would never do that. “
Taylor reconsidered a few days later and told ESPN that he would continue to host “NBA Countdown” during the playoffs as long as Nichols did not appear on the show. ESPN agreed to the condition but reportedly violated it immediately by having Nichols appear on the show in short segments in which he did not interact with Taylor.
That setup further exacerbated tensions in the 2020-21 NBA season, with Nichols reporting off the bench for ESPN’s biggest games. To prevent her and Taylor from interacting on “NBA Countdown,” Nichols’ appearances on the show were prerecorded, but were made to appear live. Other secondary reporter segments were a mix of live and prerecorded.
Before the start of the 2021 NBA playoffs, ESPN threatened not to appear live to sideline reporters if Taylor “refused to interact” with Nichols, which some ESPN employees said would have unfairly punished everyone. Except for Nichols so she could keep her job.
The Times reported that a call prior to the May 22 “NBA Countdown” show turned sour, with commentators Jalen Rose, Adrian Wojnarowski and Jay Williams, along with several other members of the show’s staff, saying the move favored Nichols at the expense of others. Namely, ESPN’s decision not to allow other supporting reporters on the show only affected women of color: Lisa Salters, Cassidy Hubbarth and Malika Andrews, all of whom reportedly received smaller assignments. Wojnarowski reportedly stepped in on the call to call Nichols “a bad teammate.”
(According to people familiar with the situation, the restrictions were lifted later that day after Pitaro spoke to Taylor and Wojnarowski, and then only to Wojnarowski, to determine if their revocation would help resolve the issue.)
Additionally, only one person has been explicitly punished as a result of Nichols ‘comments: digital video producer Kayla Johnson, who allegedly told ESPN human resources that she had sent the video of Nichols’ comments to Taylor. She was suspended for two weeks without pay. Johnson recently left ESPN and did not comment to The Times for his story.
Nichols, in response to questions from The Times, said he was “unloading with a friend about the ESPN process, not about Maria. My own intentions in that conversation, and the opinion of those responsible for ESPN, are not the sum of what matters here: if Maria felt that the conversation was disturbing, then it was, and I was the cause of it for her. “
Nichols also said he tried to apologize to Taylor through text messages and phone calls. “Maria has chosen not to respond to these offers, which is completely fair and a decision that I respect.”
“We, of course, are not going to comment on the details of any commentator contracts,” Josh Krulewitz told the ESPN spokesman. Krulewitz refused to make Pitaro available for an interview.
Taylor, whose contract with ESPN ends July 20, declined to comment to The Times about his story.