Rachel Nichols is back on the air, but the fallout at ESPN is just beginning

Rachel Nichols hosted her long-running afternoon TV show, "The Jump," Monday afternoon, and began with a brief apology: "I . . . don't want to let this moment pass without saying . . . how deeply, deeply sorry I am for disappointing those I hurt, particularly Maria Taylor," she said.

It was a day after the New York Times published leaked audio from a private conversation Nichols had a year before, in which she suggested that Taylor, her colleague, would replace Nichols as host of the network's NBA Finals pregame show because ESPN was feeling pressure to diversify its broadcasts.

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If Nichols's apology was supposed to quell the swirling controversy, it did the opposite, fueling another news cycle about why she was allowed on the air. On Tuesday afternoon, ESPN removed Nichols from her sideline job for NBA Finals coverage and chose not to air that day's episode of "The Jump."

Nichols returned to the air Wednesday, but the saga has now engulfed the NBA Finals, and the sports world, sparking questions about ESPN's record on race and diversity and Nichols's and Taylor's futures at the network. It's also a window into high-leverage contract negotiations at a time when ESPN is slashing talent salaries. The tape was released three weeks before Taylor's contract expires.

And looming over everything is how ESPN allowed the situation to explode into public on the eve of the NBA's biggest showcase.

"It's unfortunate," NBA Commissioner Adam Silver said during his annual state of the league news conference before Game 1 of the Finals. "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."

Representatives for Nichols and Taylor declined to comment. Taylor tweeted late Tuesday: "During the dark times I always remember that I am in this position to open doors and light the path that others walk down. 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."

The video of Nichols was recorded in her hotel room last summer during the NBA's pandemic-shortened season in Orlando. On a camera that fed back to ESPN's Bristol, Conn., headquarters, she is overheard complaining to LeBron James's political adviser, Adam Mendelsohn, that her contract included hosting duties for the NBA Finals pregame show, a job that was now set to go to Taylor.

"I wish Maria Taylor all the success in the world - she covers football, she covers basketball," Nichols said on the recording. "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."

According to multiple people familiar with the video, there were several hours of raw footage from Nichols's room that were sent back to ESPN. A series of clips was circulated to executives.

The recording, and its circulation among some ESPN staffers, came as ESPN was confronting racial tensions at the network in the wake of George Floyd's murder and the reckoning sweeping the country. Under President Jimmy Pitaro, the network had previously sought to minimize political controversies and serve up more meat-and-potatoes sports content after being accused, loudly and regularly, of liberal bias by conservatives, including President Donald Trump. After Floyd's killing, though, ESPN began airing specials about sports and race, highlighting content by the Undefeated, its platform dedicated to race and sports, and removing all guardrails on social media. Taylor was one of the key voices of that coverage.

To many inside ESPN, it was an overdue correction. But several staffers said it also felt like a knee-jerk reaction - that ESPN, like many media organizations around the country, felt covering race was suddenly the popular thing to do. Taylor's promotion and Nichols's taped comments came amid these conversations.

"I think it's an unfortunate part of the business when you do have people of color, there's a lot of industry jealousy they face," Jemele Hill, a former ESPN commentator, said in an interview. "Some of it is being in a high-intensity field. But there's an undercurrent of race. Black people get scrutinized in ways our White counterparts do not."

ESPN was already in contract-extension talks with Taylor when the tape first surfaced. Around the same time, another incident occurred: A staffer, thinking he was on mute, was dismissive on a staff conference call while Taylor talked about the Black experience at ESPN. By late summer, contract talks broke down, and Taylor left the influential Creative Artist Agency, which also represents Nichols, for a new agent. Taylor had an offer of nearly $5 million per year, according to two people with knowledge of the offer, a figure that could have made Taylor the highest-paid woman in sports media. (The New York Post first reported the figure.)

ESPN has a complicated history with race. Many of its top TV stars are Black; it boasts the Undefeated; and a 2018 study by the Institute for Diversity and Ethics in Sport on diversity in sports media singled out the network for its commitment to hiring female journalists and journalists of color.

"Diversity, Inclusion and Equity are top priorities at ESPN," the network said in a statement. "We recognize more work needs to be done, and we will continue our commitment to creating a culture that reflects our values."

But there have been layoffs and high-profile exits since the study - including Hill, her former SportsCenter co-host Michael Smith and prominent host Cari Champion - and inside the network there remain questions about the culture of the company.

"When issues of diversity come up at ESPN, they always say look at this person who has a big job or look at how much we pay this person," said one staffer, who was not authorized to speak publicly about internal network issues. "But I don't think there's anyone in top leadership who truly knows how to make Black people and people of color throughout the company feel valued or anyone who can reckon with what that even means or can talk about it in any real way."

Inside ESPN, according to multiple people familiar with the inner workings of ESPN, Nichols is known to be quick to protect her role as the go-to interviewer whenever NBA players have something important to say. She has done a number of news-making interviews with James and Silver, among plenty of other stars. Ahead of the 2019 season, ESPN announced that Nichols would be the host of the NBA Finals pregame show and it would be branded as her show, "The Jump."

Taylor, thought by executives to be a future face of the network, had her own growing profile on ESPN's college football coverage. Last year, she was announced as the host of "NBA Countdown," the NBA pregame studio show. She was also tasked with taking over Nichols's Finals hosting duties in the bubble, which appeared to rankle Nichols.

"There is an important racial component to the story, but there is unbridled ambition, too," said James Andrew Miller, the author of a history of ESPN, "Those Guys Have All the Fun."

Hill added that the highest levels of TV - with the highest-profile jobs and highest salaries - are often fraught.

"It's nothing our industry should be proud of," she said. "But everyone who enters television or at least spent some time in broadcasting, you very quickly see this is really not the kind of environment where you can trust people."

After the tape surfaced, according to the Times, ESPN created a way to broadcast its NBA pregame shows so that Nichols and Taylor would not have to communicate. (Any consideration of punishment for Nichols was likely complicated by the fact that Nichols was taped without her consent.) The arrangement held for the NBA regular season - and the contents of the tape stayed private - but exploded dramatically Sunday in the Times. The story was published as Taylor's contract was running out and she is in search of a new deal or a new job.

Miller described the situation as "a management nightmare," adding, "There's a level of mistrust among colleagues right now at ESPN that's at an all-time high."

On Wednesday, the National Association of Black Journalists announced it was seeking a meeting with ESPN and Disney leadership. "The silence and apparent inaction by ESPN leaders over the last year is deafening," said NABJ President Dorothy Tucker.

As for Taylor, several industry insiders predicted this week that she would leave ESPN. NBC was named as one possible landing spot. But some believed there remains the possibility that ESPN and parent company Disney come back to the negotiating table, wary of the headlines that will follow losing Taylor.

Nichols, meanwhile, faces a murkier future. She has a contract that runs through 2023. But after dismissive comments about diversity, can she cover a league, at ESPN or anywhere else, that is predominantly Black? Or can she credibly interview or cover James again after seeking advice from one of his advisers?

Robert Lipsyte, a former ESPN ombudsman, was skeptical.

"If these NBA players have any sense of agency, they would never talk to her again," he said. "How can you trust her?"

Commissioner Silver struck a more optimistic note.

"Careers shouldn't be erased by a single comment," he said during his news conference, adding, "We should be judging people by the larger context of their body of work and who they are and what we know about them."

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