Rachel Nichols Out for N.B.A. Finals Coverage on ABC
Rachel Nichols Out for N.B.A. Finals Coverage on ABC
When a sideline reporter first appeared on ABC’s broadcast of the N.B.A. finals on Tuesday night, it was not Rachel Nichols, an abrupt change announced by ESPN earlier in the day. It was an attempt to stanch a yearlong scandal that has spilled into public view about the company’s handling of conflicts centered around race.
The decision to have Malika Andrews be the sideline reporter instead was made after The New York Times reported that Nichols, who is white, made disparaging comments about a Black colleague, Maria Taylor, last year. Among other things, Nichols said that Taylor was picked to host N.B.A. finals coverage last season because ESPN was “feeling pressure” about diversity.
Nichols’s comments came during a private phone conversation while she was quarantined in a Florida hotel last July before the N.B.A. resumed its season, which had been paused because of the coronavirus pandemic. She was seeking career guidance from Adam Mendelsohn, the adviser and political strategist who works closely with the Los Angeles Lakers superstar LeBron James. The phone call was accidentally captured on camera and uploaded to a server at the company’s headquarters in Bristol, Conn., then quickly spread widely among ESPN employees.
“I wish Maria Taylor all the success in the world — she covers football, she covers basketball,” Nichols told Mendelsohn during the call. “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.”
There have been wide-ranging discussions about the comments inside and outside of ESPN over the last two days, with former employees and even N.B.A. players weighing in. The Memphis Grizzlies point guard Ja Morant tweeted in support of Taylor, while some high-profile former ESPN employees — including Dan Le Batard and Jemele Hill — discussed the matter on Le Batard’s show Tuesday morning.
In a sign of the sprawling complexity of the scandal, commentators weighed in on numerous topics, including ESPN’s discipline and management as well as the friendship and professional relationship between Nichols and Mendelsohn. Some focused on the privacy issues at play with the recorded phone call. Others, in a discussion about white privilege and career advancement, raised that Nichols is related by marriage to the famed broadcast journalist Diane Sawyer and the Academy Award-winning director Mike Nichols.
Adam Silver, the commissioner of the N.B.A., addressed the situation at length during a news conference before tip-off of Game 1 between the Phoenix Suns and the Milwaukee Bucks.
“It’s disheartening,” Silver said. He said that both Nichols and Taylor are “terrific” at their jobs, and that it was “unfortunate that two women in the industry are pitted against each other.” He said he would have thought that through difficult conversations “ESPN would have found a way to be able to work through it. Obviously not.”
Nichols was the sideline reporter for the finals last year and during ESPN’s most important N.B.A. games this season. Both ABC and ESPN are owned by Disney. “We believe this is the best decision for all concerned in order to keep the focus on the N.B.A. finals,” ESPN said in a statement.
Nichols hosted an episode of “The Jump” on Monday, and ESPN said earlier Tuesday that she would host the show on weekdays from the sites of the games throughout the finals. But although “The Jump” was listed on television schedules to air on ESPN2 at 4 p.m. Eastern on Tuesday afternoon, the show “Jalen & Jacoby” aired instead.
Josh Krulewitz, an ESPN spokesman, did not respond to a request for comment about why the show did not air.
Nichols, who has hosted “The Jump” since 2016, briefly commented during the show on Monday about the recording and her remarks about Taylor.
She said she did not want to distract from the crescendo to the N.B.A. season. But Nichols added that she did not “want to let this moment pass without saying how much I respect, how much I value our colleagues here at ESPN, how deeply, deeply sorry I am for disappointing those I hurt, particularly Maria Taylor, and how grateful I am to be part of this outstanding team.”
She was joined on the show by Kendrick Perkins and Richard Jefferson, two Black former N.B.A. players who are regulars on “The Jump.” Perkins thanked Nichols for “accepting responsibility” and added that he knows her heart and that she is a “great person, great individual.” He also complimented Taylor.
After receiving criticism on social media for seeming to defend Nichols in his comments, Perkins went on Spaces, Twitter’s audio app, to explain himself. “At the end of the day, I can’t go out there and go off and go crazy and risk losing my job because some people want me to go on there and speak for how they feel,” Perkins said.
Andrews, who is part of a finals commentating team for the first time, is a former reporter for The Times.
Taylor will host episodes of “NBA Countdown,” ESPN’s pregame and halftime show, during the finals. Neither Taylor nor the commentators on the show, Jalen Rose, Adrian Wojnarowski and Jay Williams, appeared to address the turmoil on the show ahead of the opening game.
If the finals go to a sixth or seventh game, ESPN could have a dilemma to solve. Taylor’s contract with ESPN expires near the end of the finals, and to date the two sides are not close on a renewal.