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Media Meltdowns

ESPN Bungles Makeup Call For Previous Bungling

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Yesterday, more than a year after ESPN declined to discipline Rachel Nichols for whining to LeBron James's sympathetic advisor about losing airtime to her colleague Maria Taylor because the network was "feeling pressure on diversity," ESPN announced that Nichols would be removed from NBA coverage and that it would be cancelling her daily TV show.

The move comes two months after the New York Times published an audio clip in which Nichols not only disparages Taylor, who left ESPN for NBC last month, but also laughs along with James's advisor, Adam Mendelsohn, when he said he was "exhausted" by the MeToo and Black Lives Matter movements. The Washington Post, citing an anonymous source, reported that Nichols will be paid through her contract which expires in 2023, but that it's unclear if she will appear on ESPN airwaves again.

"We mutually agreed that this approach regarding our N.B.A. coverage was best for all concerned," ESPN exec Dave Roberts said in a statement to the Post, as if Nichols hadn't been at the center of a sordid controversy that had driven Taylor, one of the network's biggest stars, from the company. “Rachel is an excellent reporter, host and journalist, and we thank her for her many contributions to our NBA content.”

For her part, Nichols tweeted as if her show had died a natural death.

Had ESPN actually handled the incident when it happened more than a year ago, instead of letting it fester until it became a public mess, they might still have Maria Taylor and they might not be stuck paying Rachel Nichols to do potentially nothing for another couple of years. It's unclear what her role will be—maybe she'll pop up on other ESPN shows, or maybe ESPN will give her a podcast, or maybe she will refuse to do any work, and just collect checks—but what is clear is that ESPN hasn't learned much of anything from this saga.

ESPN knew about the audio tape more than a year ago and not only took no action against Nichols at the time, but, as the Times reported, punished a digital video producer, Kayla Johnson, for sending the clip to Taylor. Johnson, who is black, was suspended for two weeks without pay. And as recently as May, even after Taylor and several other ESPN employees expressed anger about Nichols and the way ESPN treats black employees, network execs took no action against Nichols. From the Times report:

On the preshow call involving the stars of the show and production staff in both Los Angeles and New York, Taylor insisted to an executive that she be able to conduct live interviews with sideline reporters. She also brought up the recorded phone conversation. Wojnarowski jumped in and called Nichols a bad teammate. Rose said that ESPN had asked a lot from Black employees over the past year, but that he and other Black employees would extend their credibility to the company no longer.

Aside from punishing Johnson, ESPN took no disciplinary action (in an email to ESPN execs two weeks after the tape circulated among ESPN staff, Taylor wrote that she did "not feel as though my complaints have been taken seriously") until the situation blew up into a public scandal. Only after the Times report was published did ESPN pull Nichols from her role as sideline reporter for the NBA Finals (perhaps network execs were emboldened to sit on their hands by the existence of the tape first being revealed in an embarrassing and shoddy pro-Nichols report), but even then she remained as host of her basketball show until earlier this month.

Yesterday's decision to boot Nichols from NBA coverage, then, makes the most sense in the context of ESPN attempting to issue a makeup call for its original failure. But if ESPN execs want credit for finally getting around to handling something they should have addressed more than a year ago, they need to at least be honest about what they're doing. Claiming "mutual agreement" and heaping praise on Nichols, who is then free to imply that the show was always going to end this way, is far from a full and honest reckoning with what happened at the network. No one believes that Nichols, one of ESPN's main personalities, would have been yanked from her job had it not been for her insulting comments about Taylor and ESPN's absolute failure to address them in any meaningful way. ESPN shouldn't pretend otherwise.

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