Rachel Nichols' leaked 'diversity' comments about Maria Taylor causes uproar at ESPN

·6-min read

A bombshell report from the New York Times on Sunday revealed there is allegedly heavy internal strife at ESPN stemming comments about diversity that NBA sideline reporter and "The Jump" host Rachel Nichols made about her colleague Maria Taylor, an NBA and NFL reporter and the host of "NBA Countdown."

According to the New York Times, Nichols made these comments in July 2020 after ESPN told her that Taylor, who is Black, would be hosting coverage of the NBA Finals instead of her. Nichols sought advice from LeBron James' longtime advisor Adam Mendelsohn on a call that was reportedly accidentally recorded because Nichols hadn't turned her video camera off. 

During the call, Nichols can be heard saying that she feels like Taylor is only being promoted over her due to ESPN's long and terrible record on diversity. 

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“I wish Maria Taylor all the success in the world — she covers football, she covers basketball,” Nichols said in July 2020 via the New York Times. “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 New York Times reported that the call was recorded and stored on one of ESPN's servers, which numerous employees have access to. One employee recorded it with their cell phone and sent it to others within the company, who then sent it to more employees. The call was eventually leaked to Deadspin and the Times. Thus far, that employee is the only one to be disciplined over the incident, as Nichols said to the Times that ESPN told her that "the content of the conversation didn't warrant any discipline."

The only person known to be punished was Kayla Johnson, a digital video producer who told ESPN human resources that she had sent the video to Taylor. Johnson, who is Black, was suspended for two weeks without pay, and later was given less desirable tasks at work.

ESPN employees told the Times that the company's decision not to discipline Nichols for her comments remains an “active source of pain.” In response to questions about the punishment (or lack thereof) of employees involved in this incident, ESPN spokesperson Josh Krulewitz said this to the New York Times:

“A diverse group of executives thoroughly and fairly considered all the facts related to the incident and then addressed the situation appropriately. We’re proud of the coverage we continue to produce, and our focus will remain on Maria, Rachel and the rest of the talented team collectively serving N.B.A. fans.”

ESPN sideline reporter Rachel Nichols is under fire within the company for comments she made about her fellow ESPN employee and NBA reporter Maria Taylor. (Photo by Cassy Athena/Getty Images)
ESPN sideline reporter Rachel Nichols is under fire within the company for comments she made about her fellow ESPN employee and NBA reporter Maria Taylor. (Photo by Cassy Athena/Getty Images)

Nichols, who said she was "shaken" that a "fellow employee" would record and share a video of her private hotel room conversation, gave a statement to the Times along with responses to their questions.

In response to questions from The Times, Nichols said she was frustrated and was “unloading to a friend about ESPN’s process, not about Maria.” But she added: “My own intentions in that conversation, and the opinion of those in charge at ESPN, are not the sum of what matters here — if Maria felt the conversation was upsetting, then it was, and I was the cause of that for her.”

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.

Nichols' comments, ESPN response enrages employees and 'Countdown' crew

According to the New York Times, the response from employees who work on NBA content was anger and frustration at Nichols' attitude. 

Within ESPN, particularly among the N.B.A. group that works with both Taylor and Nichols, many employees were outraged upon watching the video. They were especially upset by what they perceived as Nichols’s expression of a common criticism used by white workers in many workplaces to disparage nonwhite colleagues — that Taylor was offered the hosting job only because of her race, not because she was the best person for the job.

The employees also said that Nichols made Taylor’s job more difficult because Taylor also needs to go to Mendelsohn to secure interviews with basketball newsmakers.

After Nichols' comments were leaked, Taylor reportedly declined to host "NBA Countdown" during the finals. She eventually changed her mind, but only on the condition that Nichols not appear on the show. ESPN agreed, then ignored that almost immediately by airing prerecorded segments with Nichols that appeared to be happening live. 

In Taylor’s view, according to six people who have spoken to her, ESPN executives agreed to the stipulation but violated it almost immediately by allowing Nichols to make short appearances without interacting with Taylor. ESPN declined to comment about the arrangement.

Maria Taylor's contact expires in just a few weeks, but ESPN has made minimal effort to address it. (Photo by Ken Murray/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images)
Maria Taylor's contact expires in just a few weeks, but ESPN has made minimal effort to address it. (Photo by Ken Murray/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images)

The segments of other sideline reporters then became a mix of live and prerecorded. ESPN later threatened to prerecord every reporters' segment on "NBA Countdown" if Taylor continued to "refuse to interact" with Nichols. This led to a blowup on a preshow call between the show's commentators — Taylor, Jalen Rose, Adrian Wojnarowski, and Jay Williams — and ESPN executives. Via the New York Times:

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.

Soon after, ESPN began allowing all sideline reporters to air their segments live on "NBA Countdown."

Taylor's contract at ESPN expires in just a few weeks, right in the middle of the NBA Finals. According to the New York Times, "few substantive steps have been taken toward a new deal" even though ESPN president Jimmy Pitaro has identified Taylor as one of the network's rising stars.

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