ESPN Turmoil: Read Key Parts of the Rachel Nichols Conversation That Sparked Backlash

A leaked conversation over ESPN’s decision to have Black host Maria Taylor cover the NBA Finals has led to a year of strife at the sports network

Rachel Nichols ESPN

A New York Times report released on Sunday included portions of a leaked July 2020 conversation by ESPN host Rachel Nichols that has led to internal backlash at the sports network and surfaced long-held frustration for the Black women employed there.

The conversation between Nichols and LeBron James’ longtime advisor Adam Mendelsohn was accidentally recorded by Nichols herself when she forgot to turn her video camera off and was transmitted to ESPN’s video servers. In it, Nichols lamented that she had been skipped over to host “NBA Countdown” during last year’s NBA Finals and was instead offered a sideline reporter job. Black colleague Maria Taylor was chosen instead to host, leading Nichols to suggest that the decision had been made because ESPN was “feeling pressure” over diversity efforts.

A transcript of that portion of the conversation published by the New York Times is below:

Nichols: So they said to me ‘Hey instead of hosting the NBA Finals, how about you do Doris [Burke, ESPN commentator]’s sideline reporter job for the NBA Finals?’ [pause] ‘Cause guess what that would clear the way for?

Mendelsohn: For her to do it full time.

Nichols: For Maria to do the hosting full time.

Mendelsohn: Yeah.

Nichols: So I have declined. I don’t know what their next move is, but they are feeling pressure because of…all of that, and I’m trying to figure out, like how to just…you know, my thing is, I wish Maria Taylor all the success in the world — she covers football, she covers basketball.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.”

In a statement to the Times, Mendelsohn and Nichols insisted that their conversation was about frustration with the company culture at ESPN and not with Taylor. Another segment released by the Times shows the two discussing their feeling that ESPN was pitting Taylor and Nichols “on each other” for the NBA Finals anchor position and that placing one woman in a major broadcasting position wasn’t enough for ESPN to resolve its lack of diversity.

Mendelsohn: “I don’t know. I’m exhausted. Between MeToo and Black Lives Matter, I’ve got nothing left.

Nichols: [laughs] Been thinking about it? And at like 2 in the afternoon three days from now you’re going to text the perfect Twitter thread.

[inaudible exchange]

Mendelsohn: You could actually generate a really interesting conversation about how it’s just so very white male for them to turn two women on each other to compete over the one spot that’s dangling over them.

Nichols: Right.

Mendelsohn: A broader conversation about all the spots that should be under consideration.

Nichols: There isn’t just one seat at the table for a minority of whichever version this week we’re trying to please.

Mendelsohn: If you think about it, this is precisely the problem we’ve been talking about for a long time now which is white men – it is an example of the one Black person in the boardroom [inaudible]…you don’t get to have a Black woman in a prominent spot and feel like “OK, the work is done.” And you certainly don’t get to say, “OK, we have a white woman, we have a woman in a critical seat, and now we’re going to put a Black woman in that same seat. The question is, what are the other seats that white males are in? That should be under consideration.

But the leaked conversation was met with anger among ESPN employees, who saw Nichols remarks as a suggestion that Taylor was picked by the network because of her ethnicity and not because she was most qualified for the job. The leak, combined with other incidents connected to how her on-air comments about the murder of George Floyd, led Taylor to tell ESPN executives that she would not finish covering the 2020 NBA season, though she relented after the network agreed that she and Nichols would not interact on-air by pre-recording all of Nichols’ sideline segments on “NBA Countdown.”

The Times also reported that when ESPN’s NBA production management decided that all sideline reporters — including three Black women — would have their “NBA Countdown” segments pre-recorded for this year’s playoffs if Taylor still refused to interact with Nichols, Taylor’s colleagues on the show threatened to boycott the show unless ESPN reversed its decision, which it did.

Taylor’s contract with ESPN expires on July 20, the same day that a possible Game 6 of the NBA Finals is scheduled to take place.


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