Sports

Rachel Nichols Joins Showtime After Contentious ESPN Exit

One year after the high-profile canceling of her television show, Rachel Nichols is back.

Showtime Sports announced Friday that Nichols would be joining the premium television network to contribute to its basketball coverage, with her first appearance coming on the “All the Smoke” podcast Friday.

For five years, Nichols was the face of ESPN’s N.B.A. coverage, sitting down for interviews with big stars, covering the playoffs and hosting its daily basketball show, “The Jump.” But she was pulled from the air and her show was canceled last year after The New York Times reported on disparaging comments Nichols had made about Maria Taylor, who at the time was her colleague at ESPN.

In a conversation with an adviser to the Los Angeles Lakers star LeBron James that was unknowingly recorded in July aviator 2020, Nichols, who is white, said that Taylor, who is Black, had been chosen to host 2020 N.B.A. finals coverage instead of her because ESPN executives were “feeling pressure” on diversity.

Shortly after The Times’s report, Taylor left ESPN for NBC, where she hosts “Football Night in America,” among other duties. ESPN replaced “The Jump” with a similar daily show called “NBA Today,” which is hosted by Malika Andrews.

On the “All the Smoke” podcast — which is hosted by the former N.B.A. players Stephen Jackson and Matt Barnes, who worked with Nichols on “The Jump” — Nichols made her most extensive comments yet on her departure from ESPN, though she revealed little that had not already been said or reported.

Nichols said that the job of hosting N.B.A. finals coverage had been written into her contract with ESPN. But as the company was preparing for the unprecedented airing of the rest of the regular season and the playoffs from a bubble environment near Orlando, Fla., because of the coronavirus pandemic, she was asked instead to be a sideline reporter so that Taylor could host finals studio coverage.

“They stressed it was my choice; they weren’t telling me to do this, because it was in my contract,” Nichols said on the podcast. “But they were putting a lot of pressure on me. I was being told, ‘Well, you’re not a team player.’ Which any woman in business knows is code, right?”

An ESPN spokesman declined to comment last year when asked whether hosting the finals was in Nichols’s contract. The spokesman declined to comment when asked again Friday. Generally, most ESPN contracts for on-air commentators are what are known as “pay or play” contracts, meaning ESPN has the right to take anybody off the air for any reason, but the company must continue to pay them.

Nichols was inadvertently recorded from her hotel room near Orlando. A camera in her room was left on after she finished taping for a show, feeding its recording to a server at ESPN’s headquarters in Bristol, Conn. Her conversation came as the country was roiled by racial justice protests after the police in Minneapolis killed George Floyd, and right after The Times reported that many Black employees at ESPN felt they were harmed by racism at the company.

On the recording, the adviser Nichols was speaking to, Adam Mendelsohn, who is white, said he was “exhausted” by Black Lives Matter and Nichols laughed.

Maria Taylor left ESPN and joined NBC, where she has covered the Olympics and hosts “Football Night in America.”Credit…Nick Cammett/Getty Images

On the podcast Friday, Nichols said she believed that ESPN was asking her to help fix employee and audience complaints about a lack of diversity in a way they would not have asked a man to do. “Do you think ESPN would ever say to Rece Davis: ‘Hey, we want to give Maria this opportunity. You go be the sideline reporter?’” Nichols said, referring to Davis, a white man who hosts “College GameDay.” “They don’t say that to men.”

Nichols added that she attempted to set up a meeting to apologize to Taylor after Taylor learned of her comments but that Taylor would not meet with her.

“I feel sorry that any of this touched Maria Taylor,” Nichols said. “She’s a fellow woman in the business. It wasn’t her fault what was going on.”

Nichols, without naming anyone, said she thought “people who had bad feelings” held on to the hotel room recording, then leaked it to the media for “leverage with their own situations.”

It is not immediately clear how big of a role Nichols will have at Showtime, which does not have rights to show N.B.A. games. According to a statement from Showtime, Nichols will “contribute to multiple programs and projects from Showtime Basketball across multiple platforms.”

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