In the history of sports media mismanagement, the way ESPN handled Rachel Nichols’ situation may not be the worst example, but it can make a case.
Maybe Nichols always deserved to be fired for her privately taped comments, in which she lamented about her perception of ESPN’s poor diversity record and the idea that executives — in the aftermath of the discussion on race after George Floyd’s death — were going to take away her contractually agreed upon job as the host of the NBA Finals and award it to Maria Taylor, who, unlike Nichols, is black.
But someone as respected as NBA commissioner Adam Silver did not think so.
Whatever view is correct, Nichols’ show, “The Jump,” was officially canceled Wednesday, and she was essentially fired by ESPN, who will pay her the final year of her contract, which likely approaches $2 million.
But, from ESPN chairman Jimmy Pitaro on down, this fiasco was the result of embarrassing, indecisive mismanagement.
More than a year ago, ESPN did not do anything of substance about Nichols’ comments when they first found out about them. Nothing. Nada.
ESPN management felt Nichols’ words were so harmful, it only made a rule that Taylor and Nichols would not appear on the air together. Passive, meet Aggressive.
But that’s not all. During that year, ESPN thought its NBA crew was doing such a stellar job, it promoted Mike Shiffman to senior vice president. Shiffman reported to Stephanie Druley, who oversaw the NBA at the time. The duo was responsible for making peace between Nichols and Taylor. It never happened.
In July, after The New York Times published Nichols’ private comments, ESPN took Nichols off the sideline for the NBA Finals, but had her continue as host of “The Jump.”
Who this made sense to was never exactly clear.
On the eve of the NBA Finals, Nichols led “The Jump” by first saying a reporter should never make the story about themselves. She then started the program apologizing in the aftermath of the Times’ story. Again, this is how “The Jump” was led on the eve of the NBA Finals! Could she hear her own words?
A day later, with Game 1 of the NBA Finals that night, “The Jump” was off the air. ESPN decided there was too much heat and gave the show a day off. It returned the next day.
Meanwhile, Silver wondered during his Finals press conference why ESPN didn’t find a resolution between Nichols and Taylor earlier and said that, “Careers shouldn’t be erased by a single comment.”
Even after the Finals, ESPN still did not take Nichols off the air. During the offseason, she was on the air until Wednesday, when ESPN made it official that Nichols would not be on the NBA, but sources said she won’t appear on ESPN again.
If there is no secret agreement preventing any legal action, Nichols may have a case to sue.
Nichols was in Florida during the 2020 NBA bubble and failed to turn off her camera in her hotel room one day in July. With the camera running, Nichols, unknowingly being taped, complained during a phone call to one of LeBron James’ advisors, Adam Mendelsohn.
“I wish Maria Taylor all the success in the world — she covers football, she covers basketball,” Nichols is heard saying on the tape. “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 things away.”
Nichols was in Florida and her conversation was being recorded to a server at ESPN in Bristol, Conn. Both states are two-party consent, meaning both parties have to know a taped phone conversation is taking place. In this circumstance, there is some legal fuzziness. (ESPN would not answer a question regarding whether they had paid Nichols more so she wouldn’t sue them. )
In July, Taylor was deep into negotiations to leave for NBC when The Times came out with its story based on the tape it had obtained, making Nichols’ words public.
Taylor finished the NBA Finals then left ESPN for NBC, where she will work on the Olympics and the NFL. After the Finals, Druley was removed as ESPN’s leader on the NBA coverage but kept her job. Dave Roberts, a longtime ESPN executive, was promoted to oversee the NBA.
With “The Jump” grounded, ESPN’s new program, according to sources, is expected to look a little more like “NFL Live,” which regularly features a cast of Laura Rutledge, Marcus Spears, Dan Orlovskly and Mina Kimes.
Malika Andrews, Chiney Ogwumike, Richard Jefferson and Kendrick Perkins could be part of the new show.
Maybe ESPN’s NBA shows will be managed better this time around. Nichols brought this upon herself. But from Pitaro on down, ESPN executives failed.
They kept Nichols and Taylor apart. Now, they are both gone. The whole thing was handled in a spectacularly poor manner.
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