A scandal over racism at ESPN that first began a year ago has prompted a broader reckoning within the company over the treatment of Black employees. The network’s current mess was initially prompted last summer after an unknown person leaked a recording of white ESPN sideline reporter Rachel Nichols saying that Maria Taylor, the Black woman who hosts the ESPN show NBA Countdown, had only gotten the role because of her race.
“I wish Maria Taylor all the success in the world — she covers football, she covers basketball,” said Nichols in the video from 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 made these racist comments after learning that Taylor, not her, would be hosting the network’s pregame and postgame shows during the NBA playoffs and finals of the 2019-20 season.
The New York Times reports that Nichols’s comments, which occurred during a phone call with longtime LeBron James advisor Adam Mendelsohn, were leaked by an unknown person after accidentally being recorded to a server at the ESPN headquarters. At another point during the conversation, Mendelsohn, who is a white man, commented “I don’t know. I’m exhausted. Between Me Too and Black Lives Matter, I got nothing left.” Nichols reportedly laughed in response, because of course she did. Nothing funnier to white people than a little anti-Black racism, I guess!
Nichols was not disciplined in any way after the video leak, and she says that she was told that the “content of the conversation did not warrant any discipline.” In fact, the only person who ESPN punished was Kayla Johnson, the Black digital video producer who told ESPN HR that she sent the video to Taylor. As a result of the incident, Johnson was suspended for two weeks without pay and was reportedly given less desirable tasks at work. Punishing a Black woman for sharing the racist remarks of a white woman with the Black woman who was the target of those remarks???? There’s something perverted about the way racism always hits its target.
Johnson has since left the company, along with a handful of other Black employees who had pressed ESPN to make changes in response to the Nichols incident to no avail. Nichols, on the other hand, has actually been made the sideline reporter for some of ESPN’s biggest games during the 2020-21 season, reportedly getting more exposure at the expense of the careers of three women of color who also work as sideline reporters.
Taylor, who has been called “a rising star” by ESPN president Jimmy Pitaro, was reportedly fed up upon hearing about Nichols’s comments last summer. “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 two weeks after the leak, reports the Times. “Simply being a front facing black woman at this company has taken its toll physically and mentally.”
Taylor eventually agreed to host NBA Countdown during that summer’s ESPN finals on the condition that Nichols not appear on the show, a condition that ESPN executives reportedly agreed to. Despite that, ESPN violated that agreement “almost immediately,” allowing Nichols to make short appearances on the show (during which she did not interact with Taylor).
Throughout the 2020-21 NBA season, all of Nichols’s appearances on NBA Countdown were pre-recorded, in order to avoid Taylor and Nichols having to interact. (Nichols was not the only sideline reporter who had appearances that were prerecorded.) But not long before the playoffs, ESPN executives said that Taylor continued to “refuse to interact with Nichols on air,” no reporters would be allowed on the show live, claiming they were doing so in order to “treat every reporter equally and inclusively.”
Although the restrictions about live interviews with sideline reporters were subsequently lifted, the racial tension within the company is far from resolved—Taylor’s contract with ESPN expires during the NBA finals, which start this week, but the company has not taken any serious steps towards establishing a new deal with the host. It’s hard to say whether the company will move to renew Taylor’s contract, but they can be sure that if they don’t, the backlash against their unaddressed institutional racism will only continue to grow.