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When the NBA playoffs started in May, the stars of ESPN’s NBA Countdown discussed whether they would refuse to appear on them in light of some in-house strife that had recently become public.
In particular, the host of NBA Countdown, Maria Taylor, initially refused, but days later reconsidered her position.
In videos and audio obtained by The New York Times, the stars were objecting to a production directive from executives that they believed was issued to benefit a sideline reporter and fellow star, Rachel Nichols, despite comments she had made suggesting that Taylor had gotten that job because she is black, the article states.
Jimmy Pitaro, ESPN’s president, had several phone conversations to help smooth things over, The Times reports. The preshow call with Taylor and the other commentators — Jalen Rose, Adrian Wojnarowski and Jay Williams — as well as NBA Countdown staff members had turned bitter, and Taylor agreed to return so long as Nichols would not appear on the show.
It all began in July 2020, when Nichols was staying at a Walt Disney World Resort near Orlando, Florida, where the NBA playoffs took place. While confined to her room due to COVID-19 quarantine protocols, she had a video camera with her so that she could continue appearing on ESPN shows. Unfortunately, she left the camera rolling during a private phone conversation that shocked many of her co-workers.
The Times reports that Nichols was hoping to be selected for the hosting duties for ESPN’s pregame and postgame shows during the playoffs and finals, but by the time she arrived in Florida, she was told by executives that Taylor would be the one hosting coverage during the NBA finals.
Rachel was unhappy with ESPN and discussed her career on a phone call on July 13, 2020, with Adam Mendelsohn, a longtime adviser of the Los Angeles Lakers superstar LeBron James and James’s agent, Rich Paul.
“I wish Maria Taylor all the success in the world — she covers football, she covers basketball,” Nichols said in July 2020, per 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 recordings obtained by The Times suggest Nichols, a white woman, suggested ESPN chose Taylor, a black woman, because of the network’s push for diversity.
“I just want them to go somewhere else — it’s in my contract, by the way. This job is in my contract in writing,” Nichols told Mendelsohn, referring to hosting coverage during the NBA finals a few minutes after saying ESPN was “feeling pressure” about racial diversity, per The New York Times.
“We, of course, are not going to comment on the specifics of any commentator contract,” said Josh Krulewitz, an ESPN spokesman, who also declined to make Pitaro available for an interview to The Times.
In a recording of the video obtained by The Times, Nichols and Mendelsohn paused for a moment during the conversation after Nichols said she planned to wait for ESPN’s next move. Mendelsohn, who is white, then said: “I don’t know. I’m exhausted. Between Me Too and Black Lives Matter, I got nothing left.” Nichols then laughed. The audio can be heard here.
Mendelsohn strategized with Nichols about how she should respond to ESPN and said she should be careful because “that place is a snake pit.” They discussed the topic that having two women competing over the same job was a sign of ESPN’s wider shortcomings with female employees.
“Those same people — who are, like, generally white, conservative male Trump voters — is part of the reason I’ve had a hard time at ESPN,” Nichols said during the conversation. “I basically finally just outworked everyone for so long that they had to recognize it. I don’t want to then be a victim of them trying to play catch-up for the same damage that affected me in the first place, you know what I mean. So I’m trying to just be nice.”
The Times reports that Nichols’ camera was on during the phone conversation, and she appeared unaware the recording was still going. She was also using new technology during the pandemic, which immediately sends the feed to ESPN’s servers, which dozens of employees have access to.
The Times reports that multiple black ESPN employees said they told one another that the conversation confirmed their suspicions that outwardly supportive white people talk differently behind closed doors.
According to the career site Zippia, the average age for a sports reporter is 39 and and that 21.8% of them are women, while 74.5% are men. The most common race/ethnicity among sports reporters is white, which makes up 70.7% of all sports reporters. There are 14.0% of Hispanic or Latino ethnicity and 7.6% of the black or African American ethnicity, the website states.
In a statement to The Times, Mendelsohn said: “I will share what I believed then and still believe to be true. Maria deserved and earned the position, and Rachel must respect it. Maria deserved it because of her work, and ESPN recognized that, like many people and companies in America, they must intentionally change. Just because Maria got the job does not mean Rachel shouldn’t get paid what she deserves. Rachel and Maria should not be forced into a zero-sum game by ESPN, and Rachel needed to call them out.”
But he declined to answer follow-up questions about their conversation.
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.
The Times reports that Taylor declined to comment. OutKick’s Bobby Burack, who is writing a column on the matter, has also reached out to Taylor. In an email to ESPN executives, Taylor said she would not finish covering the season. A few days later, Taylor reconsidered and told the company she would host NBA Countdown during the playoffs on one condition: She did not want Nichols to appear on the show.