The four-letter network, always first to hop on the latest woke agenda, is now embroiled in a racism controversy between two reporters.
On Sunday, Kevin Draper of The New York Times published a piece titled “A Disparaging Video Prompts Explosive Fallout Within ESPN.”
In July 2020, Rachel Nichols, an ESPN veteran and one of the top reporters at the company, had inadvertently recorded a conversation between her and Adam Mendelsohn — longtime advisor of LeBron James. The conversation took place in Nichols’ hotel room in Orlando, Florida, while in the NBA bubble, where the 2020 NBA Playoffs were taking place. Nichols had recently been informed by management that she would not be hosting ESPN’s pregame and postgame shows for the NBA Finals. Maria Taylor — a black woman and reporter — would be given the assignment.
Nichols, who is one of the most well-known NBA reporters in the industry, was understandably upset with the decision and vented her frustrations over the phone to Mendelsohn. Conversations over job frustrations happen on a daily basis, especially in the competitive world of journalism. The problem was that Nichols had forgotten to turn off the video camera placed in her room in order for her to perform her duties as host of “The Jump,” a popular NBA program on ESPN. Her conversation with Mendelsohn was recorded and sent to a server at ESPN headquarters in Bristol, Connecticut.
“I wish Maria Taylor all the success in the world — she covers football, she covers basketball,” Nichols said on July 13, 2020. “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.”
“I just want them to go somewhere else — it’s in my contract, by the way; this job is in my contract in writing.”
It’s important to note what was occurring during the month of July 2020. The country was in the midst of riots across the nation after the death of George Floyd. The NBA — a league with predominantly black players — was at the forefront of the Black Lives Matter movement. The basketball courts in Orlando were plastered with BLM messaging, and NBA players were allowed to wear social justice messaging on the back of their jerseys. It was a sensitive time in America, one during which many were unable or unwilling to speak their mind without fear of facing repercussions. Nichols was having a private conversation — or so she thought.
During the conversation, Mendelsohn replied to Nichols “I don’t know. I’m exhausted. Between Me Too and Black Lives Matter, I got nothing left.” Nichols then laughed, according to the recording obtained by the NY Times.
Nichols and Mendelsohn went on to discuss the culture at ESPN.
“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. “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.”
Of the people who had access to the recording on ESPN’s server, one recorded it to a cell phone and shared with others. The recording eventually reached ESPN executives.
“I was shaken that a fellow employee would do this, and that other employees, including some of those within the N.B.A. project, had no remorse about passing around a spy video of a female co-worker alone in her hotel room,” Nichols said. “I would in no way suggest that the way the comments came to light should grant a free pass on them being hurtful to other people.”
In a response to The NY Times, Nichols said she was “unloading to a friend about ESPN’s process, not about Maria.”
“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.
Nichols said that she has reached out to Taylor through texts and phone calls in order to apologize, but Taylor has never responded.
“Maria has chosen not to respond to these offers, which is completely fair and a decision I respect,” Nichols said.
Nichols’ recording set off a firestorm at ESPN, with many feeling that Nichols should be punished for what she said. The NY Times wrote, “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.”
While ESPN declined to say whether Nichols had been punished, Nichols told The Times the “content of the conversation did not warrant any discipline.” The only person known to be punished was Kayla Johnson — a digital video producer who had shared the video with Taylor. Johnson, who is black, was suspended two weeks without pay.
In an email to ESPN executives two weeks after the incident, Taylor said she felt “victimized” by the recording.
“I will not call myself a victim, but I certainly have felt victimized and I do not feel as though my complaints have been taken seriously,” Taylor wrote in an email to ESPN executives. “In fact, the first time I have heard from HR after 2 incidents of racial insensitivity was to ask if I leaked Rachel’s tape to the media. I would never do that.”
“Simply being a front-facing black woman at this company has taken its toll physically and mentally.”
The animosity between the two continued into the 2020-2021 season, with all of Nichols segments on shows involving Taylor being prerecorded in order to minimize interaction between the two.
All other segments done by various reporters were either prerecorded or allowed to appear live.
On May 22, 2021, Taylor insisted that she be allowed to conduct live interviews with reporters on a call with an ESPN executive. Taylor claimed that the only people punished after Nichols leaked call were women of color — Johnson, herself, and three sideline reporters.
ESPN gave in, and allowed reporters to do their spots live.
On Monday, Nichols apologized for her comments on “The Jump.”
“The first thing they teach you 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,” Nichols said. “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.”
Rachel Nichols opening comments on Monday’s live episode of “The Jump”: pic.twitter.com/VpI826k0pp
— Meg Turner (@megnturner_) July 5, 2021
Taylor’s contract is set to expire during the NBA Finals after she turned down a previous offer, reportedly worth $5 million per year.
Joe Morgan is the Sports Reporter for The Daily Wire. Most recently, Morgan covered the Clippers, Lakers, and the NBA for Sporting News. Send your sports questions to firstname.lastname@example.org.
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