A storm of speculation and scandal has catapulted two sports journalists at ESPN into trending debates on social media and one has since apologized.
NBA sideline reporter Rachel Nichols apologized to “NBA Countdown” host Maria Taylor on Monday as she opened her show “The Jump” after an audio recording of Nichols speculating about why Taylor was given hosting duties during the 2020 finals caused a social media firestorm.
“So the first thing they teach in journalism school is don’t be the story. And I don’t plan to break that rule today or distract from a fantastic Finals, but I also don’t want to let this moment pass without saying how much I respect, how much I value our colleagues here at ESPN, how deeply, deeply sorry I am for disappointing those I hurt — particularly Maria Taylor — and how grateful I am to be part of this outstanding team,” Nichols said.
The recording, which was obtained by The New York Times, exposes Nichols for implying the social climate of racial reckoning played a role in network executives’ decision.
The audio, which was unintentionally caught on Nichols’ camera as she was having a private conversation, was uploaded to ESPN servers. An employee with access to the footage recorded a portion of the clip on their phone and like a wildfire, it spread throughout the network last summer.
In it Nichols is heard saying, “So they said to me “Hey, instead of hosting the NBA Finals, like why don’t you do Doris’ [Burke] sideline reporter job for the NBA Finals? ’Cause guess what that would clear the way for? For Maria to do the hosting full time. So, I have declined.”
The individual she was confiding in is Adam Mendelsohn, adviser to league superstar LeBron James. Also on the call was James’ agent Rich Paul. Nichols goes on to say that while she wishes nothing but success for Taylor, she was not willing to allow executives to push her aside to save face.
“She covers football, she covers basketball, if you need to give her more things to do because you’re feeling pressure about your crappy longtime record on diversity — which, by the way, I myself personally know from the female side of it — like, go for it, just find it somewhere else. Like, you’re not going to find it with me and taking my thing away,” she continued.
At the crux of the conversation are two women, one Black and the other white, vying for career opportunities and recognition in an industry largely populated by white men, no different than ESPN.
Online debates over Nichols’ private conversation with Mendelssohn has sports fans split on their interpretation of the fallout.
Nichols claims she was “unloading to a friend about ESPN’s process, not about Maria.” But many of the nations’s viewers argue it’s the other way around.
According to several reports, ESPN has worked to keep the bubbling drama in-house, but the explosive NYT article changed all that. The report goes on to allege that the network elected not to discipline Nichols for her commentary, but instead worked to accommodate both her and Taylor’s requests in handling NBA coverage.
Others shocked by the fallout at the network have taken up issue with the lack of transparency in disciplinary actions taken against others involved in sharing the video.
According to the NYT, a Black digital video producer by the name of Kayla Johnson told human resources she sent the video to Taylor. Her punishment was a two-week suspension without pay, and a demotion to handling “less desirable” work duties. She later quit along with several other Black employees displeased with the network’s handling of diversity efforts.
While the Nichols-Taylor scandal may be the latest to rock the sports network, it has not been exempt from criticism of overlooking the pool of nonwhite talent.
After more than a decade at the company, sports journalist Jemele Hill, an ESPN.com columnist and co-host on “First Take” and “SportsCenter,” left in 2018. Her departure followed a lackluster response from the network’s viewers who were unable to stomach Hill’s outspoken sports commentary. Making matters worse was a 2017 call from former President Donald Trump’s Press Secretary Sarah Sanders for Hill to be terminated after calling the POTUS a “white supremacist” in a tweet.
“It just kind of became obvious to me that the relationship— as good and as fruitful and as beneficial as it was — had really run its course,” Hill told “The Hollywood Reporter.” The buyout on Hill’s contract cost the company more than $5 million.
In July 2020, NYT published a report featuring dozens of ESPN staffers’ commentary on the network’s lack of diversity, and allegations of people of color routinely being passed over for promotions. The newspaper presented an account of how Taylor attempted to share her personal experience with discrimination at the network during a staff conference call between some 200 staffers about college football coverage.
Taylor’s comments were interrupted by Dave LaMont, a white announcer, complaining — apparently on a hot mic he didn’t realize was unmuted — that the call had turned into a griping session for Black staffers, saying, “This call is not about college football. People are venting.”
As for Nichols, The New York Times described how she responded to the audio at the heart of the controversy being circulated: “Nichols said she reached out to Taylor to apologize through texts and phone calls. ‘Maria has chosen not to respond to these offers, which is completely fair and a decision I respect,’ Nichols said.”