Image via NBC News
This week ESPN announced that longtime on-air personality Rachel Nichols would no longer be covering the NBA for the network, and that her daily studio show The Jump would be taken off the air. The decision comes on the heels of a New York Times report in July that released audio of a conversation Nichols had in which she spoke about the placement of rising star Maria Taylor on ESPN’s NBA coverage.
During the audio, Nichols, who is white, can be heard commenting on the decision from ESPN for Taylor to host NBA Countdown during the NBA finals in part because she is black.
Nichols states “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.”
The conversation happened during the NBA playoffs in 2020 and Nichols is reportedly speaking to Lebron James’ longtime advisor Adam Mendelsohn and James’ agent Rich Paul.
ESPN was made aware of Nichols comments shortly after they happened, but they sat on their palms and refused to take any sort of action. However, when the New York Times report was published this July releasing the audio, ESPN swiftly removed Nichols from her assignment as a sideline reporter. Maria Taylor has since left the company to join NBC Sports.
The backlash surrounding the audio, and the long-recorded history of ESPN’s issues with diversity ultimately contributed to the network making the decision to part ways with Nichols. David Roberts, ESPN’s senior vice president of video production released a statement concerning Nichols, “We mutually agreed that this approach regarding our NBA coverage was best for all concerned,” the statement continued, “Rachel is an excellent reporter, host and journalist, and we thank her for her many contributions to our NBA content."
The future surrounding Nichols, as well as ESPN’s NBA coverage, is murky. It’s unclear if Nichols, who has been with ESPN since 2004, will remain with the company in a non-NBA role — though it seems unlikely. All signs point to Nichols searching for an on-air role at a different network, and ESPN pivoting to new talent to cover the NBA, such as 26-year-old phenom Malika Andrews.
Currently, it seems like the breakup is mutual between ESPN and Nichols. The two parties are saying and doing the right things as Nichols sent out a tweet after the ESPN decision to cancel her show became public expressing her gratitude for the opportunity she had. Both sides have seemingly received effective P.R. advice as they are proclaiming “It’s not you, it’s me” as they go their separate ways.
But behind the scenes we are left wondering just how icy this relationship was for the past couple months. From the moment the tape was released, ESPN executives did their best to distance themselves from Nichols and formulate a plan to transition her out as smoothly as possible. There is no denying that Nichols’ comments were wrong. But it was somewhat surprising that the network never went to bat for her considering she was once viewed as a face of the company. ESPN viewed her actions as unforgivable (albeit only when the public was made aware of them), and ultimately felt that what she brought to their NBA coverage was replaceable.
There is widespread criticism surrounding ESPN’s decision to let Nichols go, including NBA commissioner Adam Silver who stated, “Careers shouldn’t be erased by a single comment.”
Could a lawsuit be the next step in this saga? First things first — the way in which the infamous Nichols conversation was recorded likely violated state wiretapping laws. The details surrounding how the conversation was recorded and distributed aren’t crystal clear and thus it’s difficult to predict in the legal context. But reports are that Nichols unknowingly made the comments as her camera was still recording and an ESPN employee took the opportunity to send her comments around the company to show she was a “backstabber” to her colleagues.
Both Florida, where the conversation took place, and Connecticut, where ESPN is headquartered, have two-party consent wiretapping laws. This means that both parties to a conversation must consent to being recorded, which Nichols and the individuals she was talking to certainly did not do. An ESPN employee breaking state wiretapping laws to record another employee to purposefully expose them isn’t a great look for the Worldwide Leader in Sports.
On top of all of that are the unknown details surrounding Nichols and ESPN’s breakup. If I were to guess, ESPN forked over a large chunk of change to Nichols in exchange for her promise to move on from ESPN quietly. The network has skeletons in their closet involving how they handled this situation, and they don’t want someone like Nichols bringing them to light. Additionally, Nichols may have a case against ESPN for wrongful termination.
It was Nichols’ comments that led to her own demise, but there is no question that the executives at ESPN could have handled this better. Without all the details being made public, it’s difficult to speculate how likely it is we see a Nichols legal challenge to this breakup. But I would be surprised if this is the last we hear about the split between Rachel Nichols and ESPN.
 Joe Hernandez, Rachel Nichols' ESPN Show Is Canceled After Her Comments About Maria Taylor, NPR, (last visited Aug. 27, 2021) https://www.npr.org/2021/08/26/1031235088/rachel-nichols-espn-show-canceled-maria-taylor-nba-jump.
 Andrew Marchand, ESPN Embarrassed Themselves During the Rachel Nichols Saga, New York Post, (last visited Aug. 27, 2021) https://nypost.com/2021/08/25/espn-embarrassed-itself-during-the-rachel-nichols-saga/.
Matthew Netti is a 2021 graduate from Northeastern University School of Law. He currently works as an attorney fellow at the Office of the General Counsel for Northeastern University. You can follow him on twitter and instagram @MattNettiMN.