A leaked recording of a phone conversation from last year has created a difficult situation at ESPN, pitting two of the network’s most visible female broadcasters against each other, according to a report Sunday in the New York Times.
The dispute goes back to last year’s broadcast of the NBA Finals, when ESPN executives selected Maria Taylor over Rachel Nichols to be the primary host for the network’s coverage.
An unhappy Nichols discussed her frustration with not being chosen in a phone call with Adam Mendelsohn, the longtime adviser of Los Angeles Lakers star LeBron James. During the call, Nichols expressed her opinion that Taylor got the assignment because the network was feeling pressure to improve its record on racial issues.
“I wish Maria Taylor all the success in the world — she covers football, she covers basketball,” Nichols said in an audio excerpt published by the Times. “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.”
ESPN reporter Rachel Nichols stands on the court before a 2020 game between the Houston Rockets and the Dallas Mavericks in the NBA bubble.
According to the Times, the call was recorded by a camera Nichols had in her hotel room that enabled her to appear on-camera from the NBA bubble. The contents were recorded to a video server at ESPN headquarters, where any number of employees could have accessed it.
At least one person recorded a copy of the call on a cellphone, the Times reports, and the contents soon spread throughout the company.
The only person disciplined over the incident, the Times said, was a digital video producer who told ESPN’s human resources department she shared the video with Taylor. The producer, a Black woman, was suspended two weeks without pay and has since left the company.
Nichols explained to the Times she was “unloading to a friend about ESPN’s process, not about Maria.” She said she reached out to Taylor via texts and phone calls, but never received a response.
The tension between the two remained throughout the current NBA season, as Taylor has continued to host the network’s “NBA Countdown” pregame show, with all of Nichols’ segments prerecorded so they were not forced to interact.
ESPN’s Maria Taylor reports from courtside at the Dean E. Smith Center in Chapel Hill, N.C., in 2019.
The Times also reports there was a heated discussion among ESPN executives and broadcast personnel on a conference call before the playoffs began in late May. Execs said that if Taylor continued her objection to having Nichols on live, then no reporters would be allowed to. During that call, several people, including “Countdown” co-hosts Jalen Rose and Adrian Wojnarowski, expressed their support for Taylor — to the point where they considered refusing to appear on-air. Ultimately, the network reversed course.
Taylor’s contract with the network is set to expire in less than three weeks, and there have been “few substantive steps,” according to the Times, to reach a new one.
ESPN is set to broadcast the NBA Finals between the Phoenix Suns and Milwaukee Bucks on Tuesday.
This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: Rachel Nichols, Maria Taylor, ESPN rift fueled by race, leaked call