ESPN’s missteps in Rachel Nichols-Maria Taylor saga expose poor workplace culture

Network president Jimmy Pitaro’s tenure largely has been a success from a business standpoint. But behind it is an environment that’s failing its employees.

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ESPN president Jimmy Pitaro was on a roll. He repaired a fractured relationship with the NFL, securing a deal that will bring two Super Bowls to ABC. He brought the NHL back to ESPN and nabbed the rights to the SEC game of the week from CBS. From a business standpoint, his tenure largely has been a success.

But behind it all, according to reports, is a workplace environment that’s failing its employees.

This week, the New York Times revealed comments made last year by Rachel Nichols, who is white, when she learned that Maria Taylor, who is Black, would host ESPN’s studio show for the 2020 NBA Finals at Walt Disney World. Video of Nichols’ conversation, held in her hotel room, was recorded accidentally. It became available to employees through an ESPN server and was obtained by the Times.

Said Nichols: “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.”

Nichols said that July 13, according to the Times, and ESPN still allowed her to work the Finals the next month as the sideline reporter. She was supposed to handle the same job at the Finals this season, but after her comments became public, ESPN replaced her with Malika Andrews, who is Black. Nichols still is hosting her daily NBA show, “The Jump,” though it was pulled Tuesday without explanation.

Nichols, a former Sun-Times intern, apologized to Taylor on the air Monday, and she told the New York Times that she has tried to apologize through calls and texts. Taylor hasn’t responded. And because ESPN couldn’t bring them together in 12 months, the network’s missteps overshadowed the Finals before they began. Even NBA commissioner Adam Silver seemed amazed by the network’s failure.

“When people can’t get in a room and talk through these issues, this seemingly has [festered] now for a full year,” said Silver, who’ll be negotiating a new broadcast deal with ESPN before the current one expires in 2025. “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. Obviously not.”

ESPN’s mishandling has gone beyond letting feelings fester. According to the Times, it broke contractual and verbal agreements. Nichols, 47, said last year that hosting the Finals show is part of her deal. Taylor, 34, said she’d host only if Nichols didn’t appear, but ESPN reneged. The only known person ESPN punished is the producer who sent the video to Taylor. She was suspended two weeks without pay.

Taylor must be wondering why she finds herself in these situations. In September, former 670 The Score host Dan McNeil targeted Taylor for her fashion sense while working a “Monday Night Football” game. Tweeted McNeil: “NFL sideline reporter or a host for the AVN [Adult Video News] annual awards presentation?” The Score fired him the next day.

That isn’t to say Nichols should be fired. But while she believed her conversation was private, she said what she said. It provided the public a window into a company where egos are big, tensions are high and race is an issue. The Times’ story noted an email Taylor sent to ESPN brass, including Pitaro, that said, “Simply being a front facing black woman at this company has taken its toll physically and mentally.”

Nichols has been a staple of ESPN’s coverage of the NBA since returning to the network in 2016, when she began hosting “The Jump,” which she created. It’s a quality show, and Nichols has established relationships within the league that have led to noteworthy interviews. But this episode will haunt her.

Taylor is a rising star, as evidenced by her expanding portfolio of events. But her contract expires July 20, and the sides are far apart on salary, according to reports. Though ESPN has no problem spending on broadcast rights, it has tightened its spending on broadcasters, and some big names have left.

With the clock ticking on Taylor’s tenure, she might be next. Nichols might not be far behind. And ESPN only has itself to blame.

Remote patrol

  • The New York Post reported that Sinclair Broadcast Group, which jointly owns Marquee Sports Network with the Cubs, made a bid for NBC Sports Regional Networks, which include NBC Sports Chicago. Sinclair already owns 19 RSNs, rebranded this year from Fox Sports to Bally Sports, which cover 42 pro teams (MLB, NBA and NHL). NBC also has RSNs in the coveted markets of Boston, Philadelphia and Washington, and it owns a piece of the Mets’ SNY.
  • Former Bears linebacker Sam Acho signed a multiyear deal with ESPN to serve primarily as a lead studio analyst for college football on Saturdays on ESPN2. He also will call select college games and appear on ESPN programs as a college and NFL analyst.
  • Just wondering: When Chris Myers fills in on Marquee, why does he pronounce Jon Sciambi’s name differently than Sciambi does?
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