Adam Silver on ESPN's Rachel Nichols fallout: 'Careers shouldn't be erased by a single comment'

As ESPN grapples with internal turmoil that threatens to overshadow its NBA Finals coverage, Adam Silver gave a clear endorsement of embattled reporter Rachel Nichols.

Speaking at a news conference prior to Game 1 of the NBA Finals Tuesday, Silver was asked his thoughts on the tumult that surfaced from a New York Times story surrounding leaked comments made by Nichols, who is white, regarding diversity at ESPN and her colleague Maria Taylor, who is Black.

After describing the incident as "disheartening," Silver told reporters that he doesn't believe a professional with an established track record and good reputation should have her career "erased by a single comment." Silver said that he's worked through similar issues in the NBA by "getting people in a room and working through these issues by talking a lot about them."

"They require a very labor-intensive effort ... creating a climate where people are comfortable saying what’s on their mind, where people are given the benefit of the doubt, especially long-term employees that are in good standing that when they do make comments that people recognize that people make mistakes — that careers shouldn’t be erased by a single comment," Silver said.

"That we should be judging people by the larger context of their body of work and who they are and what we know about them."

Feb 14, 2020; Chicago, Illinois, USA; NBA Commissioner Adam Silver looks on during the NBA All Star-Celebrity Game at Wintrust Arena. Mandatory Credit: Quinn Harris-USA TODAY Sports
Adam Silver lamented the turmoil at ESPN surrounding Rachel Nichols as "disheartening." (Quinn Harris-USA Today Sports)

Nichols suggested Taylor advanced because of diversity effort

Silver made his comments hours after ESPN canceled Tuesday's episode of "The Jump" — which Nichols hosts — and replaced Nichols with Malika Andrews as its sideline reporter for NBA Finals coverage on parent network ABC. One of the most prominent faces of ESPN's NBA coverage is not a part of the network's NBA Finals coverage, and her future at the company appears to be in jeopardy.

The turmoil stems from a conversation the Times reports took place in June 2020 during the NBA bubble between Nichols and longtime LeBron James adviser Adam Mendelsohn. Nichols failed to turn off a video camera, and the conversation was recorded and leaked internally at ESPN.

In the conversation, Nichols was apparently concerned about losing work to Taylor and suggested that her colleague rose to her position on ESPN airwaves because of a diversity effort rather than her merits.

"I wish Maria Taylor all the success in the world," Nichols is heard saying. "She covers football. She covers basketball. If you need to give her more things to do because you’re 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."

ESPN reporter Rachel Nichols stands on the court before a game between the Houston Rockets and the Dallas Mavericks at The Arena at ESPN Wide World Of Sports Complex on July 31, 2020 in Lake Buena Vista, Florida. NOTE TO USER: User expressly acknowledges and agrees that, by downloading and or using this photograph, User is consenting to the terms and conditions of the Getty Images License Agreement. (Photo by Mike Ehrmann/Getty Images)
ESPN removed Rachel Nichols from its NBA Finals coverage on Monday. (Mike Ehrmann/Getty Images)

Silver critical of ESPN's handling of the situation

According to the Times, Taylor has refused to work directly with Nichols since she heard the audio as ESPN declined to punish Nichols until the audio went public this week. Silver, who earlier in his news conference lamented the lack of representation by women in NBA coaching ranks and media that cover the league, called the conflict unfortunate.

"It’s disheartening," Silver said. "I think it’s particularly unfortunate that two women in the industry are pitted against each other. I know that both Rachel and Maria are terrific at what they do. They work extraordinarily hard."

Silver also suggested that ESPN managed the conflict poorly.

"I think part of the problem is that when people can’t get in a room and talk through these issues — this seemingly has festered now for a full year," Silver said ... "I would have thought that in the past year, maybe through some incredibly difficult conversations, that ESPN would have found a way to be able to work through it. Obviously not. ...

"It’s one thing to talk about the principles around diversity and inclusion. It’s something else when it comes to somebody’s specific job."

Taylor hosted ESPN's pregame show "NBA Countdown" prior to Tuesday's Game 1. But her long-term status with the network is up in the air with her contract set to expire after the Finals and the Times reporting that ESPN has made little effort toward a new deal.

Nichols, meanwhile, remains under contract. Whether her role at ESPN remains tenable amid the fallout is unclear.

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