Did ESPN pull Rachel Nichols from the NBA Finals for fear that players won’t interact with her on-air?


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Fifty years ago, in 1971, Bill White was hired to call Yankee games with Frank Messer and Phil Rizzuto. He was the first Black man hired as a fulltime team broadcaster in any sport. Howard Cosell had recommended Bill to then Yankees’ president Michael Burke. At the press conference to announce White’s appointment, someone suggested that he is “the Jackie Robinson of baseball broadcasting.”

It was an epochal development and we’ve come a long way since. Now, women and minorities have opportunities that they didn’t have a half-century ago. Further progress on the equality front should continue and will, but finger-pointing won’t help.

Many, including NBA commissioner Adam Silver, are blaming ESPN for allowing the Rachel Nichols-Maria Taylor verbal spat to fester.

There might be more though to ESPN pulling Nichols off the NBA Finals. Did the network fear that players won’t do interviews with Rachel which would have been embarrassing to all parties? If so, was she removed by ESPN as a precaution? Players have a history of imposing their will in support of causes they embrace, like Maria’s.

ESPN's Rachel Nichols 'recorded saying colleague Maria Taylor hosted NBA finals because she's black' in hot mic leakTaylor, a smooth ESPN pro, has demonstrated that she can also land staggering punches with impunity. Her shield has turned into her sword. Maria has now unseated Rachel Nichols (left) and last spring, she didn’t like a comment made by Dave Lamont, on a talent-only conference call. She raised a red flag about it internally and Dave was dropped from ESPN’s roster of announcers. It’s too bad because he’s a solid football and basketball announcer whose voice can fill a room and frankly, the comment was viewed by others as debatable at best. Oh, the comment was made when Dave thought his phone was on mute.

Interestingly, prior to the incident, Lamont and his wife, who are South Florida residents, housed a young Black student who was in high school. The couple took him into their home welcomingly. Yep, there was a rush to judgment and a good man’s career was unfairly tainted.

So don’t mess with Maria Taylor.

Adam Silver, the progressive NBA commissioner said just yesterday, “We should be judging people by the larger context of their body of work and who they are and what we know about them.” Guess that didn’t come into play when it came to Lamont and Nichols.

The spirited Taylor has some fight in her. When Chicago sports talk host Dan McNeil inappropriately posted a degrading tweet last fall, one that referenced her meager wardrobe on a Monday Night Football assignment, he was rightfully fired. But that wasn’t enough. Maria shot back, “Well Danny Dearest if you would like to continue making sexist comments about me … please bring your misogyny with you to the NBA Countdown double header I’ll be hosting tomorrow night.”

As for the lingering Taylor-Nichols fiasco, Rachel reached out to an advisor, Adam Mendelsohn, using him as a sounding board. Mendelsohn is no chopped liver. He counsels LeBron James on matters of public relations.

What stuck to Rachel’s ribs was how this developed. She says her contract stipulates that the NBA assignment was hers and that last year, out of a cloudless sky, her coveted role was yanked. So Rachel shared her personal feelings with Mendelsohn in what both thought was a private conversation. Nichols told him that ESPN has a track record of failure hiring minorities but, it was the network’s problem not hers. As such, Rachel was upset that she was pulled for no reason other than to make room for a Black woman.

Mendelsohn at one point emoted too, saying, “I’m exhausted. Between Me Too and Black Lives Matter, I’ve got nothing left.”

By chance, Rachel had her computer on, including an app of sorts that ESPN sent to many of its reporters who were working from home in the heart of the pandemic. So somehow, the conversation was recorded by Kayla Johnson in Bristol, an ESPN employee, and at some point it was sent to ESPN management. When? We don’t know. Johnson also sent it to Taylor. ESPN management suspended Johnson without pay for two weeks.

Recently, it was leaked to the New York Times which did a lengthy exposé on the contentious issue last week. The timing of the leak is curious. Taylor’s contract ends later this month, likely limiting ESPN’s options

Who leaked the tape to the New York Times? Was it Taylor, was it ESPN? You don’t have to be Robert Mueller or Sherlock Holmes to think that it was someone in Taylor’s camp. So we’ve not heard the end of this saga just yet.

Silver was asked about this whole shebang at a press conference in Phoenix where he’s attending the NBA Finals. “I would have thought that in the past year, maybe through some incredibly difficult conversations, that ESPN would have found a way to be able to work through it by getting people in a room and working through these issues by talking a lot about them.”

Taylor, 34, joined the ESPN family of networks at age 27 after doing some air work on the University of Georgia Network. She was a standout athlete for the Bulldogs in basketball and volleyball. As for Nichols, it took quite some time for her to advance to the big stage. She was a writer in the 90s, working for the Sun-Sentinel in Fort Lauderdale.

Views and observations:

  • Nichols was unfairly ambushed. Rachel’s dialogue caused her undoing because she invoked the word Black. Again, this dialogue was private and no one’s business other than Rachel’s and Mendelsohn’s.
  • For his comments (above), Mendelsohn might have gotten a lip lashing from LeBron. Are these the damning Nixon tapes about Watergate? No. Can’t we have some private conversations?
  • Bottom line, there was nothing incorrect with what Rachel said. She wasn’t demeaning or in any way berating Taylor. She just wanted to retain her assignment!
  • Adrian Wojnarowski (left) who’s on the set with Maria and company, comes away as a two-faced scoundrel, saying that Nichols isn’t a good team player. You’ll remember his trenchant and nasty public comment to Missouri Senator Josh Hawley. It went like this, “F…You.” ESPN gave Woj a two-week suspension, a slap on the wrist for openly cursing a sitting U.S. senator. Now, he opens his invidious mouth to ingratiate himself with Maria.
  • Hey Woj, How about Taylor who wouldn’t segue to Nichols on the show? She didn’t want to throw it to Rachel. Frankly, it makes Taylor look childish. It reminds me of Howard Cosell’s intro on Jets broadcasts. He despised Dick Young, the powerful columnist and Jets’ color commentator so much that he ended his pre-game show, saying, “Stay tuned for the game with Merle Harmon.” He wouldn’t recognize Young by name.
  • For what it’s worth, Taylor is polished and keeps the show running in a tight format. But she rarely shares anything material or ear-popping. While she brings warmth to her teammates on the set, there’s little warmth that viewers feel. I’ve gotten a sense that despite her early success on-air, she has an agenda, she’s brash and sounds angry on ESPN’s stage.
  • Now she’s got the Bristolites over a barrel. How can the network not renew her contract after the public to-do about ESPN’s handling of diversity? Her deal is up later this month. If they give her anything near the ungodly $8 million sum she’s seeking, it would be in the neighborhood of extortion. Andrew Marchand of the New York Post reports today that she’s been offered $3 million. Michelle Beadle, her NBA pre-game predecessor, got close to $5 million. Marchand estimates that she’s making $1 million per, already.
  • When one announcer replaces a demoted or fired colleague, it’s generally incumbent upon the successor to reach out empathetically to the demoted or replaced party and say, “Nothing personal, best of luck.”  We haven’t heard whether Maria ever did so, either call or text Rachel when she was taken off the NBA.
  • Yet Nichols reached out to Maria to apologize for the comment she made to Mendelsohn. Taylor never responded. Why? She could have doused the flames a bit but chose not to do it.
  • New mom Lisa Salters ready to balance motherhood with work - ESPN Front RowThen there’s the matter of Lisa Salters (left), ESPN’s reliable and veteran sideline reporter who until 2019 worked the NBA Finals. So what happened to her? I don’t know. Yet, I haven’t heard Lisa complain but she was inexplicably short-changed. She’s covered MNF and the NBA Finals for years, going back to the couple Championships that Al Michaels presided over in 2004 and ’05.
  • The truth is that none of ESPN’s moves has increased its NBA ratings. The show lacks the heft or entertainment element of TNT’s Inside the NBA. As I’ve expressed in the past, ESPN should move Michael Wilbon, Stephen A. Smith and the unpredictable Kendrick Perkins into its NBA Countdown program.
  • I can’t attest to it but we’re told and we’ve read that the culture at ESPN stirs a competitive stable of in-fighting.
  • This mess dulls the luster of the NBA Finals further. Last year, muddled with unpopular political messaging, ratings for the Finals took a nose-dive. The first game of this year’s championship round had one of the lowest ratings in league history.
  • A media member for whom I have great respect, shared this with me, “‘Snake pit’ is too nice a description for ESPN right now.” If so, that’s too bad. There are lots of good and talented people there of all walks of life.
  • Marchand speculates that if Maria leaves ESPN, she could head to NBC which might be looking for a new host for SNF when Tirico succeeds Michaels next year on play-by-play. You wonder, why the Peacocks would consider taking a chance on a lightning rod like Taylor whose comments cause issues and infighting? From Maria’s perspective, she aspires to be the next Robin Roberts and if she lands at NBC, she’d set her sights on the Today Show studio.

This Taylor-Nichols feud has spawned further anger and debate in America, the greatest country in the world. I haven’t seen many opinion pieces on how Rachel’s privacy was violated or comments from attorneys on the legality of recording calls between two parties without their consents.

What I did see this morning is a CNN opinion piece, written by Rafia Zakaria, a columnist for Dawn newspaper in Pakistan and The Baffler. She’s the author of “Against White Feminism: Notes of Disruption.”

Zakaria strongly suggests that we’re living under a caste system where among other things, White women of privilege don’t have the challenges that Black women do.


David J. Halberstam

David is a 40-year + industry veteran who served as play-by-play announcer for St. John's University basketball in New York and as radio play-by-play voice of the Miami Heat in South Florida. He is the author of Sports on New York Radio: A Play-by-Play History and The Fundamentals of Sports Media and Sponsorship Sales: Developing New Accounts.

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