The Truth Behind the Rachel Nichols-Maria Taylor Leak

Since July 2020, a privately recorded conversation between Rachel Nichols of ESPN and Adam Mendelsohn, a longtime adviser to LeBron James, has floated in and out of media circles. The clip contains audio of Nichols discussing ESPN's decision to bypass her and name Maria Taylor host of NBA Countdown. As months passed, it seemed less and less likely that the audio would leak. However, it wasn't that it would never leak. The truth is, the timing wasn't yet right.

One year later, on July 4th, The New York Times released and quoted from Nichols' conversation, in which she suggests that Taylor had gotten the hosting job because she is black.

From the outside, leaks seem mysterious. But from the inside, leaks are obvious and telling. This is true of the White House, Wall Street, NBA, NFL, Fox News, ESPN, and local political campaigns. A particular story comes out when someone wants that story out, and it's almost never hard to deduce who divulged it.

The process is straightforward: a person or representative (an agent, manager, or mom) sends private information to a reporter, expecting advantageous results from its publication. To fully maximize the results, a leaker often holds the information until an opportune time.

For the leak headlined "A Disparaging Video Prompts Explosive Fallout Within ESPN," July 4, 2021, was the opportune time -- three weeks before Maria Taylor's contract expires. 

In other words, someone sent the recording of Nichols to a useful idiot at the New York Times to assist in Taylor's unreasonable contract demands.

Taylor wants $8 million a year, a near $7 million annual raise at a time when ESPN asks other employees to take 30% cuts. Last year, Taylor turned down an offer for $5 million a year. Sources tell OutKick that Taylor's mother and a manager have handled much of her behind-the-scenes conversations over the past year.

Sunday morning, I sent Maria Taylor a text message asking if she had a comment on the widespread belief within the media industry that someone in her camp had directly saved and sent this audio to the Times. Taylor has not responded.

The idea behind the leak is to paint Taylor as the victim by saying another host diminished her by reducing her down to her skin color. 

In reality, ESPN executives, not Nichols, have diminished Taylor and her colleagues down to the melanin level in their skin.

"I wish Maria Taylor all the success in the world — she covers football, she covers basketball," Nichols said last July. "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."

Taylor's skin color was a factor in ESPN's decision to move her to Countdown. It's a factor in every one of ESPN's decisions. Denying it is like saying hot women don't get free drinks and to cut in line. Looks matter in America, and race matters at ESPN. Ask any agent, manager, or executive off the record if they agree. Jalen Rose may call it "tokenism" if the winning recipient is white.

Taylor didn't win the job merely because she is black, but in this climate, her skin color didn't hurt her chances. Her skin color clearly is a factor in contract negotiations, just like it was in Mike Golic's when ESPN decided to boot him out the door last year.

The spineless leaker didn't send the Times Nichols' audio because it was offensive but because it contained leverage.

Talent leverage at ESPN is now a product of fear -- fear of the Times causing ESPN a real headache, should the network make the wrong person feel slighted.

Taylor's leverage, interestingly, stems from a report one year ago from the same Times' reporter, pointing out that ESPN had not re-signed three black females: Jemele Hill, Cari Champion, and Josina Anderson. (This guy has a purpose in life. It's good to find yours.)

The argument is baseless, though. ESPN has gleefully let go of far more white men than they have black women. If ESPN is all about diversity, as it claims, why hasn't it replaced Dan Le Batard with another Hispanic host?

Nevertheless, not a single ESPN executive has the balls to say in a company meeting that the network promotes and pays black personalities more than any other group right now.

This is particularly true of black women. In the under-40 talent group -- the age group talent agents target -- some of the personalities most aggressively promoted by ESPN are black women. Taylor is first, followed by Malika Andrews, Elle Duncan, Chiney Ogwumike, and Kimberly Martin. Others in the top 10 are Marcus Spears, a black man; Laura Rutledge, a white woman; Charly Arnolt, an Italian woman; Mina Kimes, an Asian woman; and Dan Orlovsky, a white man.

While it's undoubtedly gross we must view each ESPN employee by gender and skin color, it's almost impossible to cover this industry and focus on anything else. This mindset is the reason for the New York Times' report on Sunday.

It's perhaps even more troubling that, had Nichols spoken of any other ESPN host, this story would've stayed out of the public picture. Taylor's entire negotiating period has been based upon the lie that she is a victim.

Maria Taylor, 34, is featured on College GameDay on ESPN. She is also the host of the NBA Finals on ABC. In 2020, ESPN offered her a new contract that would more than double her salary, even as it has slashed the salaries of other hosts in half. Until OutKick, Taylor had never had a negative word written about her. ESPN handpicked Taylor to be one of its future faces of ESPN. Every major talent agency wanted Taylor, signed her, then lost her.

Since 2018, no one in sports media has had it better than Maria Taylor. Nor has anyone questioned her rise until she curiously claimed she needed more money and that she had eclipsed her colleagues in value. 

Maria Taylor is going to make a lot of money in the next decade. But this business doesn't end well for anyone. Everyone has an expiration date, and it almost always comes abruptly. How you treat others in times of power is how they will remember you at the time of your fall.

Happy July 4 to ESPN and the New York Times. Only in America could the two of you spread such easily debunked lies.

Written by
Bobby Burack is a writer for OutKick where he reports and analyzes the latest topics in media, culture, sports, and politics.. Burack has become a prominent voice in media and has been featured on several shows across OutKick and industry related podcasts and radio stations.