The worldwide leader in vaguely sports-related drama is at it again!
While hosting the 2021 NBA Finals, ESPN recently found a way to make the story about the media sports juggernaut itself. The latest controversy centered around comments made by Rachel Nichols, the white host of ESPN’s The Jump and NBA sideline reporter, about her African American colleague Maria Taylor.
Without skipping a beat, the oddsmakers at Bovada started handicapping Rachel Nichols’ career prospects just as they have been covering the NBA finals on-the-court action. There’s no facet of sports they won’t let you bet on! (Although, technically, the Nichols odds are posted in the Entertainment Betting section of the website.)
Bovada is offering two prop bets dealing with Nichols’ future with ESPN:
- Will ESPN Still Employ Rachel Nichols on December 31, 2021?
- Will Rachel Nichols Host The Jump Next Season?
We’ll take a closer look at each wager a little lower down on this page.
In the meantime, before we begin making predictions on the longtime sports journalist’s future with ESPN, we must consider a few factors that will add some context to the situation. There are multiple layers to the Nichols-Taylor story – most of which will play a critical role in determining the Disney subsidiary’s actions.
Let us start with what was said – the comments at the center of this scandal.
What Was Said?
This story erupted across American sports media after a July 4 New York Times article shined a light on an ongoing struggle within ESPN, stemming from leaked audio of Rachel Nichols making comments — that many consider disparaging – about NBA Countdown host Maria Taylor.
Nichols’ private phone conversation with Adam Mendelsohn — an adviser who works closely with LeBron James – was captured on camera, unbeknownst to the ESPN talent, and uploaded to the media giant’s servers in Bristol, Connecticut.
“I wish Maria Taylor all the success in the world — she covers football, she covers basketball,” Nichols was recorded saying in 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.”
“I just want them to go somewhere else — it’s in my contract, by the way; this job is in my contract in writing,” Nichols also told Mendelsohn.
Later, the pair discussed the culture at ESPN headquarters.
“Those same people — who are, like, generally white conservative male Trump voters — is part of the reason I’ve had a hard time at ESPN,” Nichols told the political and communications strategist.
“I basically finally just outworked everyone for so long that they had to recognize it. I don’t want to then be a victim of them trying to play catch-up for the same damage that affected me in the first place, you know what I mean. So I’m trying to just be nice.”
Taylor released a brief response to the New York Times story — and Nichols’ comments — on social media.
“During the dark times I always remember that I am in this position to open doors and light the path that others walk down,” she posted to both Twitter and Instagram. “I’ve taken some punches but that just means I’m still in the fight. Remember to lift as you climb and always KEEP RISING.”
Not New Comments
It’s important to note that Rachel’s comments are not new.
They were recorded last year from Nichols’ hotel room at the Coronado Springs Resort at Walt Disney World, where she was quarantined for seven days per NBA bubble protocol. Once the recording was captured, it was seen by employees with access to ESPN’s video servers. In at least one case, someone recorded the footage on a cellphone and disseminated copies of the conversation to coworkers throughout the company.
The employee responsible for uncovering the video cut it into clips and sent about four minutes of footage to Deadspin. Here’s what the G/O Media website reported at the time:
In light of privacy concerns and our being unable to view the entirety of the conversation recorded, we have chosen not to detail the conversation or post the video of the call. Sources have told Deadspin that the entire video of Nichols’ conversation was 30 minutes long. Deadspin received about four minutes of edited footage. It is also worth noting that the videos were sent to Deadspin as an attempt to discredit Nichols’ job status within ESPN, and with the public at large, with the anonymous source texting our reporter that the videos would “expose” Nichols as a “back-stabber” and a phony ally.
Before the conversation details became public, coverage primarily focused on the invasion of Rachel Nichols’ privacy.
The Deadspin article even pointed out that both Florida and Connecticut (where the servers are located) are two-party consent states. Both parties must agree to have their phone conversation recorded. Perhaps that’s why the violation of Nichols’ trust was ESPN’s first concern initially.
“We are extremely disappointed about the leak of a private conversation. It’s indefensible and an intrusion on Rachel’s privacy,” the network said in a statement. “As for the substance of the conversation, it is not reflective of our decision-making on staffing assignments for the NBA, which has largely been driven by the circumstances of the pandemic.”
Since the New York Times article, the discourse has shifted from “how” the footage was collected to the substance of Nichols’s comments and whether they were racist. The piece claims that Taylor was shown the video, leading to a rift between her and Nichols. ESPN’s reaction to the leaks further divided employees, including on-air talent.
According to the NY Times, before the playoffs, the stars of NBA Countdown considered not appearing on the network’s flagship basketball program.
They were objecting to a production edict from executives that they believed was issued to benefit a sideline reporter and fellow star, Rachel Nichols, despite comments she had made suggesting that the host of “NBA Countdown,” Maria Taylor, had gotten that job because she is Black. Nichols is white.
A preshow call with Taylor and the other commentators — Jalen Rose, Adrian Wojnarowski and Jay Williams — as well as “NBA Countdown” staff members had turned acrimonious, and Jimmy Pitaro, ESPN’s president, had several phone conversations while at a family event to try to help smooth things over.
Some of those involved saw the initial maneuvering as a sign of the network favoring Nichols despite a backdrop of criticism from employees who complained that the sports network has long mishandled problems with racism. It had declined to discipline Nichols despite fury throughout the company over her remark, which she made during a phone conversation nearly a year ago after learning that she would not host coverage during the 2020 NBA finals, as she had been expecting.
Many Americans – black and white, inside of ESPN and out – felt that Nichols’s comments diminished Maria Taylor’s talent and hard work, chalking her success up to nothing more than cynical corporate ‘diversity” hiring. Taylor didn’t deserve the NBA Finals assignments Rachel expected to receive; the media giant just wanted good optics for putting an African American in that spot.
Once the comments — and inter-ESPN drama they subsequently ignited — were publicized, and the conversation turned to “race,” ESPN panicked and reacted to the moment. Suddenly, they had to “act,” despite trying to suppress the story for a year.
Multiple Things Can Be True
As someone who primarily covers politics, I’ve become acutely aware of how stories like this one are used to push competing agendas from all over the ideological spectrum.
- For some, Rachel Nichols’s comments are racist sour grapes – she’s mad about being passed over for the NBA Finals and is blaming it on a cheap “diversity ploy.” From this perspective, Rachel is an entitled brat who feels professionally threatened by a woman of color. Maria Taylor got hired because she’s the best person for the job, and a supposed white “ally” has been exposed.
- Others, including many current and former ESPN employees – many of whom were Nichols’s colleagues — have chosen to focus on the network’s terrible management. They promised The Jump co-host the finals gig, then changed course when it was politically convenient. Then they let the issue fester rather than take control of the situation.
- Right-wing sports fans have mostly relished in the scandal, claiming it’s an example of the “woke” eating their own.
Whatever your opinion, I think it’s crucial to remember that none of these possibilities are mutually exclusive.
For example, I tend to believe that Nichols is correct to assume ESPN changed their coverage of the NBA Finals for cynical reasons. If they genuinely cared about elevating black voices and weren’t just responding to the moment, they probably wouldn’t have fired Jemele Hill for sharing opinions that are now prevalent on the network, post-George Floyd.
At the same time, the comments were unfair to Maria Taylor and insinuated that she was undeserving of the role. She was right about ESPN’s nasty motivations but shouldn’t have said and played into a common trope that black people frequently experience, with any professional success being is discounted and as “affirmative action.”
Will Rachel Nichols be Employed by ESPN on December 31, 2021?
Rachel Nichols returned to ESPN in 2016 after three years away. She was at CNN hosting Unguarded with Rachel Nichols from 2013-2016 and being a sideline reporter for Turner Sports’ NBA on TNT. Since rejoining the network, the 48-year-old has co-hosted The Jump, a daily discussion show about basketball, and become a recurring guest host on other ESPN programs.
Nichols was initially named the host of the NBA Finals on ABC, but those plans were scrapped during the pandemic lockdown.
Remember, while the basketball season was on hold from COVID-19, George Floyd was killed, igniting racial protests across the nation. Amid that sociopolitical climate, management decided that Maria Taylor’s NBA Countdown would present the finals pregame and halftime coverage. That’s what Nichols is referencing when she accuses ESPN of “feeling pressure about [the channel’s] crappy longtime record on diversity.”
Employed by ESPN on Dec 31, 2021?
- Matchup Odds
Now, the question is if her second stint at the network will be cut short prematurely. Bovada’s oddsmakers are taking betting action on whether Rachel Nichols remains employed at ESPN through the end of 2021.
I think she’s going to weather the storm and stay with the company for a few reasons.
Maria Taylor’s Contract Negotiations
One of the fascinating wrinkles to this story is Taylor’s ongoing contract negotiations with ESPN and their media competitors. The 34-year-old former collegiate basketball and volleyball player’s contract expires on July 20, the day of Game 6 of the NBA Finals.
Some of Maria’s detractors have accused her of overreacting to Nichols’ comments to leverage more money out of the controversy. However, even if those claims are inaccurate, it’s impossible to deny that the timing has been advantageous in that regard.
Maria Taylor is now a household name; another company could make a resounding statement by hiring away from Disney. ESPN is also well aware of the optics. After awarding Taylor their NBA Finals duties, any perceived effort to lowball or discount her will play especially poorly with the public.
Here’s why I think Maria Taylor’s contract situation bodes well for Nichols’ employment status with ESPN:
- Recently, it’s been reported that NBC is making an aggressive play for Taylor, potentially eying her as Mike Tirico’s successor to host “Football Night in America.” Plus, NBC’s Summer Olympic coverage opens in three days – they’d love to make a major splash and hire a marquee talent with significant name value as a last-minute addition to their broadcast team.
- By all accounts, the seven-year ESPN veteran has already rejected multiple offers from her current employer – ranging from between $3 – 5 million per year. That tells me she thinks she can get more elsewhere.
- ESPN isn’t going to fire Rachel Nichols or push her out if Maria Taylor is leaving anyway. I could only see them ditching a talent like Nichols if they were forced to choose between one host or the other, and the racial aspect of the conversation was still prominently discussed on social media.
I also don’t think you can underplay the benefit of having industry and familial connections. Nichols’ mother-in-law is legendary broadcast journalist Diane Sawyer. Her husband, Max Nichols, is a film and music video director and the son of Academy Award-winning director Mike Nichols.
She’s also represented by CAA, the enormous talent agency that exercises immense control over ESPN. In fact, CAA represents Nichols and Taylor both. If they can use this opportunity to snag a substantial contract for Maria and keep Rachel’s paychecks coming in, that’ll be a win-win.
The Legal Implication
Lastly, I’m not sure the Disney brass wants to risk exposing themselves to any lawsuits from firing Rachel Nichols. She could argue that the comments for which she’s being punished were recorded illegally without her knowledge or consent and that the company failed to protect her privacy. Such a case would shine quite a bit of light on the situation:
- How and why was her camera recording at the moment in question
- Why was the conversation saved to the ESPN servers?
- How were the clips were leaked through the company (and beyond)?
The intelligent corporate move is to keep Nichols and hope the entire ordeal blows over in time. Otherwise, you try and make her life miserable until she quits eventually — but you don’t fire her!
Will Rachel Nichols Host The Jump Next Season?
Will Nichols Host The Jump Next Season?
- Matchup Odds
There’s no doubt in my mind that ESPN will employ Rachel Nichols at the end of the year; I’m less confident that she’ll continue to host The Jump. From everything I’ve read and listened to about the culture at the network, leadership is all about managing appearances and minimizing controversy.
The most “ESPN” thing to do is retain Nichols’ services and slightly change her responsibilities.
Due to the fallout from this situation, some athletes and co-hosts may not want to work with the longtime fixture on NBA sidelines. Maybe they move Rachel off of basketball for a season or two. Give her football or a hosting gig on ESPN’s 10 million “talking heads arguing about the daily sports headlines” shows.
Keeping Rachel Nichols employed at ESPN but taking her off The Jump is the outcome I’m predicting. Retaining and moving her represents the path of least resistance for the mega-company – in terms of PR and potential lawsuits – while simultaneously offers a decent payout.