Rachel Nichols, a white ESPN host, is in damage control mode after suggesting Maria Taylor, a Black host of the network’s NBA Countdown, got the job because of mounting pressure on ESPN to diversify. “I wish Maria Taylor all the success in the world—she covers football, she covers basketball,” Nichols said during a recording of a more than 20-minute phone call The New York Times obtained. “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.” Nichols made the remarks on July 13, 2020, when she learned she wouldn’t be hosting the NBA Finals as expected. She didn’t apologize publicly for the comments until they were featured in a New York Times’ article on Sunday. Nichols issued her apology on the Monday edition of the ESPN show 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,” Nichols said. “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.”
Taylor is in the process of negotiating a new contract with ESPN as her current contract expires on July 20, Deadline reported. It’s unfortunate timing for the anchor, considering ESPN announced on Tuesday that sports journalist Malika Andrews, a Black woman, will replace Nichols as sideline reporter during the NBA Finals, according to The Washington Post. “We believe this is best decision for all concerned in order to keep the focus on the NBA Finals,” ESPN said in a statement. “Rachel will continue to host The Jump.”
The initial conversation that prompted the controversy was with Nichols; Adam Mendelsohn, an adviser to LeBron James; and Rich Paul, James’ agent. Nichols told the Times she was frustrated and “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 told the Times she was “shaken that a fellow employee would” record her and “had no remorse about passing around a spy video of a female co-worker alone in her hotel room.”
She told the Times Taylor hasn’t responded to the white anchor’s attempts to apologize and that at the time of the conversation, she was told the “content of the conversation did not warrant any discipline.” However, Kayla Johnson, the Black digital video producer who later sent the video to Taylor, was suspended for two weeks and stuck with “less desirable” work after the incident, the Times reported. Johnson later left ESPN.
Taylor told ESPN executives including Jimmy Pitaro, the company’s president, in an email The New York Times obtained that when she learned of Nichols’ comments she was fed up because she had already learned of another colleague’s disparaging remarks. “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,” she wrote two weeks after the Nichols incident. “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.” Taylor added: “Simply being a front-facing black woman at this company has taken its toll physically and mentally.” Taylor later reconsidered and agreed to host NBA Countdown if Nichols didn’t appear, an agreement ESPN failed to uphold, the Times reported.
I would love to devote an entire article to how hurtful, problematic, and painfully unoriginal Nichols’ remarks were. I mean, if there were a Karen manifesto, crying that “a diversity hire cost you your job” would be right up there with “affirmative action is hogwash.”
Two sentences are more than enough criticism for Nichols, however, because make no mistake the real culprit is ESPN, specifically the work culture the company has created and continues to nurture. It’s not enough just to replace someone from an underrepresented group with someone else from an underrepresented group. At some point, the network has to change the culture, and that starts from the top down. The fact that a human resources representative allegedly thought it appropriate to target a whistleblower instead of the person making the insensitive remark should let the network know it has a real problem, sadly not an unoriginal one.