ESPN is in turmoil after one of its star reporters, who is white, was heard on a hot mic criticizing the network’s decision to tap a black female colleague to host its NBA coverage last year.
Rachel Nichols was overheard last year in a phone conversation saying that she was passed over in favor of a black woman, Maria Taylor, because ESPN was ‘feeling pressure’ to have more on-air diversity.
In her conversation with Adam Mendelsohn, Nichols is heard complaining about being passed over to host the network’s marquee pre- and post-game shows during the NBA playoffs and finals last year.
An audio excerpt of the phone call was obtained by The New York Times.
Rachel Nichols, ESPN’s NBA sideline reporter, was heard on a hot mic last year complaining that she was passed over for the role of studio host during the NBA playoffs in favor of a black woman, Maria Taylor. Nichols is seen above in Los Angeles on June 24
ESPN executives last year picked Taylor (seen above in August 2019) to host its NBA Countdown pre- and post-game studio show for the duration of the playoffs and the finals
When a recording of the call leaked and began to circulate among ESPN employees, it prompted a crisis with several of the network’s top talent contemplating a refusal to appear on the air in protest.
It also caused anger among black employees at the network who felt that the secretly recorded conversation was a more accurate reflection of white attitudes about diversity.
The anger boiled over when it became apparent that ESPN President Jimmy Pitaro would not discipline Nichols despite the demands from employees that he do so.
Nichols confided in Adam Mendelsohn, a public relations and communications strategist
The only individual known to be punished was Kayla Johnson, a black digital video producer who reportedly told human resources that she sent the video to Taylor.
Johnson was suspended for two weeks without pay and was later given less desirable tasks at work. She recently left ESPN along with other black employees who felt mistreated by the network.
There was outrage that Nichols appeared to suggest that Taylor was picked to host the channel’s NBA playoffs coverage simply because she was black and not because she was the most qualified for the job.
‘I wish Maria Taylor all the success in the world – she covers football, she covers basketball,’ Nichols, a veteran sideline reporter who works the network’s NBA games and also hosts an NBA daily news show called The Jump, told Mendelsohn in July 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.’
Nichols claimed in her phone call with Mendelsohn that her bosses were violating the terms of her contract.
Nichols reached out to Mendelsohn, who was working as an adviser to Los Angeles Lakers superstars LeBron James (right) and Anthony Davis (left)
‘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 says in the recording.
ESPN did not immediately return DailyMail.com’s request for comment on Sunday, but a spokesperson for the network told the Times: ‘We, of course, are not going to comment on the specifics of any commentator contract.’
The private conversation between Nichols and Mendelsohn was initiated by the ESPN reporter who was trying to book an interview with two of his star clients – Los Angeles Lakers star LeBron James and his teammate, Anthony Davis.
Nichols also sought Mendelsohn’s advice on how to navigate the internal corporate politics at the Bristol, Connecticut-based sports behemoth.
Nichols called Mendelsohn from a hotel room on the campus of Walt Disney World, where she was set to work during the resumption of the NBA season that was halted due to the coronavirus pandemic.
The NBA concluded its 2019-2020 season from a ‘bubble’ in Orlando, where a secluded site was set up to protect players, coaches, and other personnel from the fast-spreading coronavirus.
It is likely that Nichols inadvertently failed to turn off a video camera that she carried with her that connected to a server back in Bristol which was recording her as she spoke to Mendelsohn.
While the video recorder was on, Nichols is not seen in the frame.
The server in Connecticut can be accessed by dozens of ESPN employees, at least one of whom is said to have recorded the conversation on their cell phone and then shared it with others.
The news of the leak sparked a panic among ESPN executives who feared that Nichols would sue the network for a violation of privacy. Nichols reportedly did not threaten to sue, according to the Times.
Taylor and other black employees at ESPN were outraged when the network disciplined a black employee, Kayla Johnson, a digital video producer who reportedly told human resources that she sent the video of Nichols’ phone call with Mendelsohn to Taylor. Johnson was suspended without pay for two weeks. A short time later, she left the network
An anonymous tipster sent a four-minute edited clip to the web site Deadspin claiming that the video would ‘expose’ Nichols as a ‘back-stabber’ and phony ally to the cause of Black Lives Matter.
The comments by Mendelsohn, a high-powered communications strategist who worked for former California Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger before teaming up with James, were considered controversial among ESPN employees.
After Nichols said she planned to wait and see what ESPN would do next, Mendelsohn said: ‘I don’t know. I’m exhausted. Between MeToo and Black Lives Matter, I got nothing left.’
ESPN President Jimmy Pitaro is pictured above
Later in the conversation, Mendelsohn warned Nichols: ‘Be careful because that place is a snake pit.’
Mendelsohn suggested that Nichols pull off a ‘baller’ move by telling her boss, Pitaro, that the network did not value its female talent by pitting two of its women stars against each other for the same spot.
Nichols then complains about the culture at the company.
‘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.’
When asked to comment by 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.’
Nichols told the Times that her conversation with Mendelsohn was her ‘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.’
Taylor was so furious that she agreed to continue hosting NBA Countdown on condition that Nichols not be interviewed live on the air during the show. From left: Countdown co-hosts Paul Pierce; Adrian Wojnarowski; Taylor, Jalen Rose, and Jay Williams
Nichols told the Times that she has tried to contact Taylor through phone calls and text messages to offer an apology.
‘Maria has chosen not to respond to these offers, which is completely fair and a decision I respect,’ Nichols said.
She was angry that employees at her company leaked and circulated a recording of a private telephone conversation.
‘I was shaken that a fellow employee would do this, and that other employees, including some of those within the NBA project, had no remorse about passing around a spy video of a female co-worker alone in her hotel room,’ Nichols said.
She then added: ‘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.’
After the video leaked, Taylor told Pitaro that she would not finish out the NBA season.
‘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 Pitaro and other ESPN executives two weeks after the 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.’
Last year, Nichols called Mendelsohn from a hotel room on the campus of Walt Disney World, where she was set to work during the resumption of the NBA season that was halted due to the coronavirus pandemic. The NBA concluded its 2019-2020 season from a ‘bubble’ in Orlando, where a secluded site was set up to protect players, coaches, and other personnel from the fast-spreading coronavirus
She added: ‘Simply being a front facing black woman at this company has taken its toll physically and mentally.’
Days later, Taylor agreed to continue hosting NBA Countdown on one condition – Nichols was not to appear on the show.
Sources close to Taylor told the Times that she believes ESPN executives agreed to her condition but then reneged when they had Nichols appear on Countdown in segments that did not entail any interaction between the two women.
This season, ESPN had all of Nichols’ appearances on Countdown pre-recorded so as to avoid any interactions with Taylor.
But when the playoffs began, ESPN said that if Taylor continued to refuse to speak to Nichols on the air, no sideline reporters would be allowed to appear on Countdown live.
‘The idea behind this was to treat every reporter equally and inclusively by providing a similar forum and platform,’ an ESPN spokesperson told the Times.
The optics did not look good considering the other sideline reporters working ESPN’s NBA beat – Lisa Salters, Cassidy Hubbarth, and Malika Andrews – were all women of color.
Taylor, who was considered a rising star at the network, is likely to leave as her contract expires later this month. She is seen above in August 2019
On May 22, matters came to a head when ESPN Countdown stars and production staff criticized network bosses for apparently siding with Nichols.
Taylor, reporter Adrian Wojnarowski, and commentator Jalen Rose demanded that they be allowed to stick to the arrangement of having sideline reporters appear live on Countdown’s air with the exception of Nichols.
Pitaro agreed and the crisis was defused for the time being.
An ESPN spokesperson told the Times that the company ‘arguably has the most diverse array of talented professionals in the sports media business, including those behind the scenes.’
The scandal is believed to spell the end of Taylor’s tenure at ESPN. Her contract expires this month and efforts by the network to lock her up appear to have failed.