Why ESPN Can’t Stay Out of Foul Trouble

Why ESPN Can't Stay Out of
Photo illustration: Cheyne Gateley/VIP; Adobe Stock

As an NBA season unusually replete with injuries comes to a close, the focus throughout the postseason has been on which players couldn’t suit up to play. But when the championship round tipped off Tuesday, the attention wasn’t on lineups for the opposing teams as much as it was a substitution in the broadcast booth.

That’s because of a predicament ESPN finds itself in thanks to leaked audio of a private phone conversation last year with a white anchor, Rachel Nichols, who is heard suggesting the network re-assigned 2020 NBA Finals hosting duties to a black colleague, Maria Taylor, because of pressure to improve the diversity of its on-air talent, as opposed to earning the position on her own merit.

With Taylor approaching the end of her ESPN contract, the Disney-owned network opted Monday to bench Nichols for the NBA Finals telecasts, while she would remain with her weekday ESPN program “The Jump” and Taylor would continue hosting “NBA Countdown.”

What must be frustrating is the network isn’t necessarily at fault here for what transpired, whether we’re talking about Nichols’ inexcusable remarks or the unidentified employee who obtained and distributed a recording the reporter didn’t realize wasn’t private.

Nevertheless, talent relations always seems to be a challenge for ESPN, which has made an unfortunate habit in recent years of off-court drama featuring its anchors and analysts spilling into public view. Few seem to leave without kicking up considerable dust in their wake, which reflects badly on the culture coming out of its Bristol, Conn. headquarters.

As Nichols herself said when she offered an apology for her comments on the Monday edition of “The Jump,” it’s never a good thing when a journalist becomes the story instead of the person telling the story. And yet the frequency with which this sideshow seems to play out again and again at ESPN taints the brand and the product it puts on the air.

One problem also tends to build on the next. For instance, social media is filled with calls for Nichols’ ouster because ESPN moved quickly in April to fire commentator Paul Pierce after he broadcast himself on Instagram Live cavorting with strippers. Fair or not, the optics are terrible: terminating a black man while not doing same for a white woman in a similar role.

Unfortunately, the Nichols affair is not the first time ESPN has been called out for racism, either. It’s an unacceptable look for a network devoted to multiple pro and collegiate sports in which black athletes predominate.

Perhaps it’s just a matter of time before Nichols, who did not appear on “The Jump” Tuesday, or Taylor jumps ship as a result of what transpired, which could compound an issue that may even be worse and more ingrained than the constant controversies: a continuing brain drain at ESPN.

While ESPN management has been forced to cut jobs as recently as last November in order to boost profits, there’s been a steady stream of high-profile exits on both sides of the camera since then. Most recently, Kevin Merida, lead editor for ESPN’s The Undefeated, decamped in May for the top job at the Los Angeles Times. Last month, ESPN fired sports betting analyst Kelly Stewart less than a month after hiring her because of old tweets in which she used anti-gay slurs. Last December, three key on-air personalities departed, each in different circumstances: Dan Le Batard, Trey Wingo and Tom Rinaldi. The executive ranks on the programming side also suffered the losses of Connor Schell, Jodi Markley and Libby Geist.

That said, for every defection ESPN suffers, it has multiple examples of key talent it managed to retain; the revolving door at ESPN has spun hard before and the network has survived. But in a world where the network is confronting an increase in cord-cutting and the delicate transition to streaming via ESPN+, what didn’t permanently damage the sports empire in the past could leave them vulnerable this time around.

As Game 1 of the NBA Finals reminded us, ESPN does great work. But that work is compromised when the company can’t seem to get out of its own way.