Discover more from The Sports Column
TIME FOR RACHEL NICHOLS TO SUE THE PANTS OFF MICKEY MOUSE
Abusing power in unconscionable ways, ESPN has canceled the longtime star, arrogantly ignoring that the company’s own video/audio server recorded her in the presumed privacy of her Disney hotel room
The N in ESPN now should belong to Nichols. If she so desires, Rachel Nichols can take on the dreaded Disney Company attorneys — the ones battling Scarlett Johansson in another courtroom — and sue her soon-to-be-former employer for, among other sins, invasion of privacy. She probably won’t because NBA commissioner Adam Silver respects her and could direct her parachute toward TNT, where she’ll continue what has been lost in this farcical drama: her highly credible work as a host and sideline reporter.
But it’s time someone challenges the Worldwide Leader in Dysfunction. No matter who is running the company, there’s a Kremlin-like stench in the halls of Bristol that turns power into perversion and talented sports media people into poisoned pawns. ESPN thinks it can conveniently cancel Nichols because she wasn’t an obedient puppet, because she dared to criticize the company for past flaws in diversity hiring while painting herself as a prime-time victim in shameless catch-up efforts.
When the truth is painful, Bristol never looks inward. Rather, it takes the sinister, corporate way out and blames the in-house messenger. Nichols is not the problem, and if she were to flee a cutthroat industry and focus on raising her twin daughters with her husband, she can’t leave without first pointing out that ESPN IS THE PROBLEM.
To recap, Nichols learned last year that she was being replaced on the network’s game-day/night showcase, “NBA Countdown,’’ by Maria Taylor. Nichols is White. Taylor is Black. Amid the tense, fraught cultural churn of 2020, Nichols wondered what she had done to deserve the demotion — she and her self-created weekday NBA show, “The Jump,’’ have been nominated for Sports Emmy awards — and said so in a phone conversation with Adam Mendelsohn, a heavy public-relations hitter who advises LeBron James on subjects including political activism.
‘‘I wish Maria Taylor all the success in the world — she covers football, she covers basketball,” Nichols told Mendelsohn. ‘‘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.”
Should she have kept those flammable thoughts to herself, expressing them only to her closest family members? Yes. But here’s why Nichols has a robust legal case: She was speaking in what she believed was the privacy of her room inside a Disney-owned hotel, at Walt Disney World, where a Disney-owned media company assigned her to the Bubble-ized pandemic season of Disney’s business partner, the NBA, and expected her to remain isolated with players, coaches and league personnel. She was in ESPN lockdown, away from her family for months, and if Paul George and other NBA players spoke of the emotional upheaval in a hellish experience, imagine learning in the early weeks of that Bubble that you’re losing your high-profile gig.
Furthermore, imagine venting to a confidante in such a freaky, surreal and unprecedented space — and not realizing Big Brother was listening. George Orwell would be fascinated to know that someone in ESPN’s vast production empire hadn’t turned off the network’s video camera installed in Nichols’ room, a device required of reporters appearing on air during the pandemic. Her comments were being recorded on a server, which is crack cocaine to the sort of divisive creeps who scheme to backstab people inside media companies. Next thing you knew, the Rachel Tape was strategically distributed like cancer throughout the company. Taylor was made aware, as were her colleagues in ESPN’s basketball division, many of whom are Black. By the time the audio reached the in-box of company president Jimmy Pitaro, Bristol had yet another internal scandal. Only this one was boiling in the summer of Black Lives Matter.
What happened next should be chilling to young aspirants who think advancement in media is about outworking, outsmarting and outproducing the competition. You can be out-sleazed and out-politicked without having the slightest idea. Behind the scenes, some of the very people who worked with Nichols on her shows were conspiring against her, demanding that she be reprimanded. For months, the Disney bosses — Pitaro, NBA programming chief Stephanie Druley, longtime Disney czar Bob Iger, incoming Disney boss Bob Chapek — did not address a dangerous situation and fueled the raging fires. While Nichols kept working, Taylor and her supporters felt ignored by management. Never has a strong leadership strategy been more critical and urgent at ESPN. And never has leadership been more miserably inept and missing, as underlined by Silver before Game 1 of an NBA Finals interrupted by the Nichols-Taylor fireworks, which followed a New York Times report detailing Nichols’ comments in the tape.
“This is an incident that happened I guess when Rachel was in the bubble a year ago, and 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,’’ said Silver, adding that it was “particularly unfortunate that two women in the industry are pitted against each other’’ and that Nichols and Taylor are “terrific at what they do.’’
Unconscionably, ESPN pointed the entirety of blame at … Nichols. With millions fixed on the Finals and the surrounding dissension, the company removed her from sideline duties, effectively appeasing Taylor (and her supporters) and hoping she would sign a contract extension to remain as host of major NBA shows. Yet Taylor flipped her own bird at Bristol after the Finals, leaving immediately for NBC, which flew her to Tokyo for Summer Olympics duties. Her departure was bemoaned publicly by Pitaro, whose failures looked even worse. He could have apologized publicly for the snafu, but an embrace of self-accountability is not the ESPN corporate way, even when Silver is upset and critical.
The bosses waited until this week, with sports at its low ebb on the 2021 calendar and America on a pre-Labor Day pause, to fire one last bullet at Nichols. They removed her from all NBA programming, canceled “The Jump’’ and weren’t shy in saying privately that she’ll never appear again on an ESPN platform. Pitaro didn’t attach himself to a statement, leaving those duties to Dave Roberts, now in charge of what will be significantly revamped NBA programming. “We mutually agreed that this approach regarding our NBA coverage was best for all concerned,” said Roberts, who is Black and replaces Druley, who is White. “Rachel is an excellent reporter, host and journalist, and we thank her for her many contributions to our NBA content.”
In the end, no one wins. Taylor left. Nichols is gone. And after years upon years of botched decisions in its NBA division, ESPN continues to humiliate itself while TBS — catapulted by the universally acclaimed “Inside The NBA’’ studio program — shows how professional broadcasting is executed.
A cynic would say this is how business is conducted in the 21st century. I’d say it’s a horrific way to treat a long-valued employee who needlessly has been dumped due to a company’s cowardly, naked fear of racial backlash. I always hesitate drawing from my own experiences at ESPN, knowing some people think I hold a grudge for a long-ago parting of ways. In truth, unlike industry climbers who view Bristol as a destination, I have no interest in working there again — and have the advantage of teaching people how the place operates.
In the first and only legal matter of my life, which later was completely expunged while I was prevailing in a civil case, ESPN immediately yanked me from ‘’Around The Horn,’’ where I had appeared almost daily for eight years. If it was the company’s right to sit me while waiting out the legal process, the show was irresponsible in letting panelists condemn me on the very next program when no charges had been filed — with one participating panelist later confiding they’d been asked to comment by the producers. Did ESPN consider how those comments might influence the case?
Nah. There was a hidden agenda, you see. As president John Skipper told me during a Malibu dinner chat in 2013, the network needed “diversity’’ on “Around The Horn,’’ a goal that came to fruition with numerous new faces in coming years. As a champion of diversity, I always thought the five-white-guy look on the show was awful. My problem was that Skipper and company executives were mounting their initiative at my personal and professional expense.
The same could be said about Nichols, of course. Correcting a “crappy longtime record on diversity,’’ to quote her, comes with the careless price of collateral career damage. For now, she is staying above the fray, tweeting, “Got to create a whole show and spend five years hanging out with some of my favorite people talking about one my favorite things … An eternal thank you to our amazing producers & crew — The Jump was never built to last forever but it sure was fun. More to come …”
But considering Disney Company also might be involved in a crime — in Florida and Connecticut, both parties on a phone call must consent to being recorded or eavesdrop-monitored — then, yeah, Rachel Nichols could own the S in ESPN, too.
As in, Scapegoat.
Jay Mariotti, called “the most impacting Chicago sportswriter of the past quarter-century,’’ writes sports columns for Substack and a Wednesday media column for Barrett Sports Media while appearing on some of the 1,678,498 podcasts in production today. He’s an accomplished columnist, TV panelist and radio talk host. Living in Los Angeles, he gravitated by osmosis to film projects. Compensation for this column is donated to the Chicago Sun-Times Charity Trust.