The Rachel Nichols flap

Rachel Nichols covers NBA basketball for ESPN. Her long-running show “The Jump” is devoted exclusively to the the NBA, I believe (I’ve never watched more than a few minutes of it). Nichols is White.

Maria Taylor is a sideline reporter and presenter for ESPN. She appears on broadcasts of football and basketball games, and maybe some other stuff. Taylor is Black.

Until last season, Nichols had hosted ESPN’s NBA Finals pregame show. She expected to host it again last season, but was replaced, apparently without any explanation, by Taylor.

In response to the move, or perhaps in anticipation of it, Nichols complained privately. Unfortunately, her private conversation was recorded, without her consent, under circumstances that are not clear (at least not to me). Here is what Nichols said:

I wish Maria Taylor all the success in the world — she covers football, she covers basketball. 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.

Someone shared this recording with ESPN staffers. One of them shared it with Taylor.

ESPN took no action against Nichols at the time. Why should it have? Employees complain privately about their job assignments all the time. The fact that the recording of Nichols’ conversation was without her consent (and probably illegally) further complicated matters.

So, perhaps, did the fact that it’s illegal to retaliate against employees for complaining about perceived race discrimination. Thanks to expansive court rulings on what constitutes retaliation, the fact that she didn’t complain to ESPN or to the government probably wouldn’t create a defense to a retaliation claim in the event of adverse employment action by the company.

Another complications was that Nichols’ complaint is almost certainly well founded. Taylor got Nichols’ gig at the height of George Floyd fever. In all likelihood, ESPN, having caught the fever, wanted to signal its virtue.

There is no other apparent reason for Nichols’ demotion. Her performance doesn’t seem to have been an issue, and there is little doubt that she knows the NBA better than Taylor does. It’s her beat.

In any case, ESPN had nothing to gain by punishing a popular reporter for her private remarks, thereby highlighting her view that ESPN has a “crappy longtime record on diversity” including (alleged) mistreatment of women.

Thus, the only step ESPN took was to make sure Nichols and Taylor never had to communicate during NBA games they both covered. This move, one might easily infer, was at Taylor’s insistence.

ESPN apparently never tried to clear the air. This caused Adam Silver, the NBA commissioner, later to say:

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.

I don’t often agree with “China” Silver, but I think he’s right about this.

In any case, ESPN’s strategy (or lack of one) backfired when, just before this season’s Finals, the audio of Nichols’ complaint became public. Someone shared it with the New York Times.

This happened just as Taylor’s contract with ESPN was about to expire. The parties were involved in intense negotiations over possible renewal, and Taylor reportedly was talking to other possible employers. Which makes you wonder.

The move also occurred as Nichols was set to be sideline reporter for the Finals. Which also makes you wonder.

ESPN removed Nichols from her role as sideline reporter for the Finals. It also declined to air the latest recording of “The Jump.” However, Nichols was back on the air with that show after an absence of just one day.

On her return, Nichols issued an apology to “those I hurt, particularly Maria Taylor.” The two Black former players who appear with Nichols — Richard Jefferson and Kendrick Perkins — vouched for her as a person. I assume their endorsement was genuine, though it’s fair to wonder what else they could have done.

Nichols’ career may be in jeopardy, though. She relies on NBA sources for her scoops, of which she apparently has had her share. If Blacks players and their agents freeze her out, as ESPN’s former ombudsman Robert Lipsyte reprehensibly says they should, she’s probably finished. At a minimum her value to ESPN or any employer in the same business is seriously diminished.

Taylor’s career may receive a needed boost. She’s now passes as an official victim of “racism.” Plus, plenty of people now will recognize her name.

To me, Nichols is the victim, though. Her career is in jeopardy because she privately complained about what she reasonably thought was race discrimination.

Had Nichols made her complaint to the EEOC, she very clearly would be protected by law from retaliation by ESPN or anyone who works there. She’s probably protected even on the usual facts surrounding her complaint.

However, she isn’t protected from NBA players no longer favoring her with information.

What we have here, I think, is another example of the disturbing fact that one’s career can be harmed, and even wrecked, for perfectly legitimate speech uttered privately if (and only if) that speech bothers leftists — as more and more speech does these days. In other words, what we have is more evidence that the illiberal left is making America significantly less free.

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