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ESPN attempts to contain controversy embroiling the network as NBA Finals get underway

By Oliver Darcy, CNN Business

A version of this article first appeared in the “Reliable Sources” newsletter. You can sign up for free right here.

The New York Times published its explosive story regarding disparaging comments Rachel Nichols made about colleague Maria Taylor on Sunday. On Tuesday night, the fallout was visible on ABC. Instead of Nichols on the sidelines of the NBA Finals as the games got underway, viewers instead saw rising star Malika Andrews covering the Bucks vs. Suns face-off.

That was because, earlier in the day, ESPN pulled Nichols as the network continued to attempt to get a handle on the controversy ignited by the NYT story. But while it pulled Nichols from sideline reporting duties, it said that she would continue to host her afternoon show “The Jump.” In a short statement, the network said that it believed that resolution — if you can call it one — to be the “best decision for all concerned in order to keep the focus on the NBA Finals.”

However, just a few hours after the network released that statement, Nichols was MIA, not hosting the Tuesday edition of her show. Instead, as CNBC’s Dan Mangan reported, “two other ESPN hosts, Jalen Rose and David Jacoby, appeared on their show, ‘Jalen and Jacoby.'” No explanation was given for Nichols’ absence, leading to the natural question: Will Nichols host her show on Wednesday? That is apparently the plan, but we will see…

“ESPN, Rachel Nichols and Maria Taylor all look bad in this drama”

That was the headline on the latest entry from New York Post sports columnist Andrew Marchand. “It is hard to figure out who looks the worst in the whole ESPN-Rachel Nichols-Maria Taylor drama,” he declared in a Tuesday piece.

Marchand faulted ESPN management for having failed to actually address Nichols’ remarks about Taylor with anything more than mere “passive-aggressive Band-Aids” until after the NYT story. “ESPN management did her no favors by allowing a wound to become infected,” he wrote. And he knocked ESPN brass for being “too weak to force” Nichols and Taylor “into a room” to “hash it all out as adults.” Marchand did describe Nichols’ comments as “demeaning, insensitive, and hypocritical,” but he also pointed out that Taylor “could have put out this fire, if she had wanted to…”

Jemele Hill’s point

Speaking on “The Dan Le Batard Show with Stugotz,” Jemele Hill tried to get to the root of the matter, saying ESPN’s problem is bigger than Nichols and Taylor. “When you are constantly reacting to public criticism or to the moment as opposed to having structural things in place where you address these things, that’s why you wind up looking sloppy or crazy before the rest of the world,” she said. Hill added that she believed this incident is “really a reflection of a culture that was created by ESPN’s management…”

Let’s not forget

There are two things worth keeping in mind as we all continue to digest this story: First, it is important to note that Nichols has attempted to privately apologize to Taylor, though she says that Taylor “has chosen not to respond” to her, a decision she described as “completely fair” and one she respects. Nichols has also publicly apologized for her conduct as well. Second, we shouldn’t lose sight of the fact that Nichols was recorded while in the privacy of her hotel room. That’s a big deal too…

The other backdrop

Not only is this controversy playing out during the NBA Finals, it is playing out during Taylor’s negotiations for a new contract. Marchand reported in late-June that Taylor at one point turned down an offer for an annual salary of nearly $5 million, holding out for more. That deal, according to Marchand, is no longer on the table after the pandemic and Disney “closely watching the network’s pocketbook.” Now, he reports, it’s “believed to be in the $2 million – $3 million range.” Which has led some critics to wonder whether the NYT story about the year-old comments made by Nichols was planted in the press as part of a larger negotiation strategy. Per Marchand, Taylor’s contract expires in just weeks, “on or around July 20…”

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