As the N.B.A. playoffs started in May, the stars of ESPN’s marquee basketball show, “NBA Countdown,” discussed whether they would refuse to appear on it.
They were objecting to a production edict from executives that they believed was issued to benefit a sideline reporter and fellow star, Rachel Nichols, despite comments she had made suggesting that the host of “NBA Countdown,” Maria Taylor, had gotten that job because she is Black. Nichols is white.
A preshow call with Taylor and the other commentators — Jalen Rose, Adrian Wojnarowski and Jay Williams — as well as “NBA Countdown” staff members had turned acrimonious, and Jimmy Pitaro, ESPN’s president, had several phone conversations while at a family event to try to help smooth things over.
Some of those involved saw the initial maneuvering as a sign of the network favoring Nichols despite a backdrop of criticism from employees who complained that the sports network has long mishandled problems with racism. It had declined to discipline Nichols despite fury throughout the company over her remark, which she made during a phone conversation nearly a year ago after learning that she would not host coverage during the 2020 N.B.A. finals, as she had been expecting.
“I wish Maria Taylor all the success in the world — she covers football, she covers basketball,” Nichols said in July 2020. “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 has been trying, and often failing, to deal with the scandal for months. But a fast-approaching deadline is forcing the network to show at least some of its cards. Taylor’s contract expires during the N.B.A. finals, which start on Tuesday between the Phoenix Suns and the Milwaukee Bucks, yet few substantive steps have been taken toward a new deal even though Pitaro has identified Taylor as one of ESPN’s rising stars.
Whether or not ESPN and Taylor agree on a contract, the internal damage from the past year has been substantial.
This article is based upon interviews with more than a dozen current and former ESPN employees, as well as others with knowledge of the company’s inner workings. Most of them spoke on condition of anonymity because they were not authorized by ESPN to speak to the news media or because of paperwork they had signed upon leaving the company.
In mid-July last year, Nichols was staying at the Coronado Springs Resort at Walt Disney World near Orlando, Fla., confined to her room for seven days because of the N.B.A.’s coronavirus protocols before the season resumed. She had with her a video camera so that she could continue appearing on ESPN shows, primarily “The Jump,” a daily N.B.A. show she has hosted since 2016.
But she was eyeing hosting duties for ESPN’s pregame and postgame shows during the playoffs and finals, the network’s most important studio basketball programming. That host is the face of ESPN’s N.B.A. coverage, and before the pandemic, both she and Taylor hosted different versions of the show.
About the time Nichols arrived in Florida, she was told by executives that Taylor would host coverage during the N.B.A. finals.
Nichols discussed her career on a phone call on July 13, 2020, with Adam Mendelsohn, the longtime adviser of the Los Angeles Lakers superstar LeBron James and James’s agent, Rich Paul. Nichols was speaking with Mendelsohn to request an interview with James and his Lakers teammate Anthony Davis, whom Paul also represents. During the conversation, she also sought advice from Mendelsohn because she believed her bosses were advancing Taylor at her expense.
“I just want them to go somewhere else — it’s in my contract, by the way; this job is in my contract in writing,” Nichols told Mendelsohn, referring to hosting coverage during the N.B.A. finals a few minutes after saying ESPN was “feeling pressure” about racial diversity.
“We, of course, are not going to comment on the specifics of any commentator contract,” said Josh Krulewitz, an ESPN spokesman. Krulewitz declined to make Pitaro available for an interview.
Unbeknown to Nichols, her video camera was on, and the call was being recorded to a server at ESPN’s headquarters in Bristol, Conn.
It is not clear why her camera was on, but most people at ESPN believe that Nichols, using new technology during a pandemic, did not turn it off properly. It was effectively the remote pandemic version of a hot mic incident.
Dozens of ESPN employees have access to the company’s video servers as part of their normal work flow.
At least one of these people watched the video on the server, recorded it on a cellphone and shared it with others. Soon, more copies of the conversation were spreading around ESPN, and within hours it reached ESPN executives, in part because of some of the comments from Mendelsohn. He is a prominent political and communications strategist who has worked for the giant private equity firm TPG; was a communications director and deputy chief of staff for Arnold Schwarzenegger, then the governor of California; and is a co-founder of James’s voting rights group, More Than a Vote, which focused on encouraging access for Black voters during the 2020 election.
In a recording of the video obtained by The New York Times, Nichols and Mendelsohn paused for a moment during the conversation after Nichols said she planned to wait for ESPN’s next move. Mendelsohn, who is white, then said: “I don’t know. I’m exhausted. Between Me Too and Black Lives Matter, I got nothing left.” Nichols then laughed.
Mendelsohn, throughout the conversation, strategized with Nichols about how she should respond to ESPN. “Be careful because that place is a snake pit,” he said. They considered a move that Mendelsohn described as “baller” but “hard to pull off”: telling Pitaro and others that having two women competing over the same job was a sign of ESPN’s wider shortcomings with female employees.
Later, Nichols and Mendelsohn go on to discuss the culture at ESPN’s headquarters.
“Those same people — who are, like, generally white conservative male Trump voters — is part of the reason I’ve had a hard time at ESPN,” Nichols said during the conversation. “I basically finally just outworked everyone for so long that they had to recognize it. I don’t want to then be a victim of them trying to play catch-up for the same damage that affected me in the first place, you know what I mean. So I’m trying to just be nice.”
Multiple Black ESPN employees said they told one another after hearing the conversation that it confirmed their suspicions that outwardly supportive white people talk differently behind closed doors.
In a statement, Mendelsohn said: “I will share what I believed then and still believe to be true. Maria deserved and earned the position, and Rachel must respect it. Maria deserved it because of her work, and ESPN recognized that like many people and companies in America, they must intentionally change. Just because Maria got the job does not mean Rachel shouldn’t get paid what she deserves. Rachel and Maria should not be forced into a zero-sum game by ESPN, and Rachel needed to call them out.”
He declined to answer follow-up questions about their conversation.
In response to questions from The Times, Nichols said she was frustrated and was “unloading to a friend about ESPN’s process, not about Maria.” But she added: “My own intentions in that conversation, and the opinion of those in charge at ESPN, are not the sum of what matters here — if Maria felt the conversation was upsetting, then it was, and I was the cause of that for her.”
Nichols said she reached out to Taylor to apologize through texts and phone calls. “Maria has chosen not to respond to these offers, which is completely fair and a decision I respect,” Nichols said.
Taylor declined to comment.
Nichols said the recording of the video by an ESPN colleague was hurtful. “I was shaken that a fellow employee would do this, and that other employees, including some of those within the N.B.A. project, had no remorse about passing around a spy video of a female co-worker alone in her hotel room,” she said, adding, “I would in no way suggest that the way the comments came to light should grant a free pass on them being hurtful to other people.”
Krulewitz, the spokesman, said: “A diverse group of executives thoroughly and fairly considered all the facts related to the incident and then addressed the situation appropriately. We’re proud of the coverage we continue to produce, and our focus will remain on Maria, Rachel and the rest of the talented team collectively serving N.B.A. fans.”
Within ESPN, particularly among the N.B.A. group that works with both Taylor and Nichols, many employees were outraged upon watching the video. They were especially upset by what they perceived as Nichols’s expression of a common criticism used by white workers in many workplaces to disparage nonwhite colleagues — that Taylor was offered the hosting job only because of her race, not because she was the best person for the job.
The employees also said that Nichols made Taylor’s job more difficult because Taylor also needs to go to Mendelsohn to secure interviews with basketball newsmakers.
As ESPN executives were deciding what to do about the video, a four-minute cut of the conversation was leaked to Deadspin. (The video obtained by The Times is more than 20 minutes of continuous conversation.)
The leak had a major effect on how ESPN responded. Multiple former ESPN employees, including a former executive, said that company executives expressed fears of a lawsuit from Nichols and that Disney, ESPN’s parent company, became heavily involved.
Krulewitz said the leak did not change how the company reacted. Nichols said she spoke with a lawyer to better understand how an ESPN investigation would work, but she did not threaten to sue.
ESPN declined to say whether any employees were disciplined, and Nichols said that she was told that the “content of the conversation did not warrant any discipline.” The only person known to be punished was Kayla Johnson, a digital video producer who told ESPN human resources that she had sent the video to Taylor. Johnson, who is Black, was suspended for two weeks without pay, and later was given less desirable tasks at work.
Johnson did not respond to requests for comment and recently left ESPN.
Taylor, who had recently gained widespread acclaim for her on-air comments about the murder of George Floyd by a police officer, was fed up because she had also been disparaged recently by at least one other ESPN colleague for speaking about Floyd. She told executives, including Pitaro, the company’s president, that she would not finish covering the season.
“I will not call myself a victim, but I certainly have felt victimized and I do not feel as though my complaints have been taken seriously,” she wrote in an email to ESPN executives, including Pitaro, two weeks after the incident, which was obtained by The Times. “In fact, the first time I have heard from HR after 2 incidents of racial insensitivity was to ask if I leaked Rachel’s tape to the media. I would never do that.”
She added: “Simply being a front facing black woman at this company has taken its toll physically and mentally.”
A few days later, Taylor reconsidered and told the company she would host “NBA Countdown” during the playoffs on one condition: She did not want Nichols to appear on the show.
In Taylor’s view, according to six people who have spoken to her, ESPN executives agreed to the stipulation but violated it almost immediately by allowing Nichols to make short appearances without interacting with Taylor. ESPN declined to comment about the arrangement.
One employee involved in N.B.A. coverage said that ESPN’s decision not to punish Nichols was still an “active source of pain” and discussion among co-workers.
It also has potentially affected coverage and assignments. For the 2020-21 N.B.A. season, in addition to her role hosting “The Jump,” Nichols was made the sideline reporter for ESPN’s most important N.B.A. games.
Taylor, meanwhile, has become increasingly comfortable with expressing her views within the company. In the spring, she admonished executives for appointing a game coverage team for the N.C.A.A. women’s Final Four that did not include any Black women and pressured the company to add LaChina Robinson as an analyst, which they did.
Taylor also has given Malika Andrews, who is Black, a bigger role on “NBA Countdown,” which directly led to the latest internal tug of war.
To avoid having Taylor and Nichols interact, all of Nichols’s appearances on “NBA Countdown” this season were prerecorded, but often in a way to make segments appear as if they aired live. Appearances by other sideline reporters were a mixture of live and prerecorded.
Shortly before the playoffs, however, ESPN executives said that if Taylor continued to refuse to interact with Nichols on air, no reporters would be allowed on the show live. “NBA Countdown” pushed back to no avail.
“The idea behind this was to treat every reporter equally and inclusively by providing a similar forum and platform,” Krulewitz said. Nichols said she preferred “consistency in the way the show used the reporters,” and added that she told ESPN decision makers that she did not want to take opportunities away from others.
But on May 22, the first day of the N.B.A. playoffs, the tensions exploded between those who worked on the show and ESPN executives in charge of basketball.
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.
Taylor, whom executives had asked numerous times to change her interactions with Nichols, said that the only people punished by ESPN’s actions were women of color: Johnson, herself and the three sideline reporters — Lisa Salters, Cassidy Hubbarth and Andrews — who received lesser assignments so that Nichols could have the lead sideline reporter role and now were not being allowed to appear on the show live.
Pitaro spoke with Taylor and Wojnarowski, and Wojnarowski alone, when Pitaro asked Wojnarowski whether going back to the status quo and allowing sideline reporters to appear on the show live would solve the problem, according to three people familiar with the conversation.
By the end of the day, the restrictions were rescinded.
Krulewitz declined to comment on the argument, besides saying that “the decision regarding reporters on these shows was made solely by N.B.A. production management,” and not Pitaro.
The spread of the recording throughout ESPN happened less than a week after Pitaro had pledged “accountability” and improvements throughout ESPN’s workplace culture.
“We are going to speak through our actions here, and we are going to improve,” Pitaro said in an interview then. “If we don’t, it is on me, I failed, because it does all start with me.”
Still, nobody was outwardly punished besides Johnson, the producer who recently departed ESPN. She left with a handful of Black employees who had pressed Pitaro for changes.
Krulewitz said ESPN emphasizes diversity, inclusion and equity, and that the company “arguably has the most diverse array of talented professionals in the sports media business, including those behind the scenes.”
Taylor’s contract with ESPN expires in less than three weeks, and it looks increasingly likely that those could be her last weeks at the network.