Comments made and unintentionally recorded by ESPN’s Rachel Nichols, who is white, about her Black colleague getting an assignment over her, raise several questions about ESPN’s diversity efforts as well as the distinction between public and private allyship.
This is what happens when Black Excellence becomes, well, too excellent.
When you talk about rising talent in the sports journalism world, there are few whose star shines brighter than Maria Taylor. The 34-year-old Georgia native has become a fixture on ESPN programming—that’s plural not singular—in large part because she has excelled in every role she has been asked to play.
And she has been given plenty.
College Football. Men’s and women’s college basketball. The NBA, the WNBA, the NFL ... you name it, and she’s done it and done it well.
That’s why the comments made by Taylor’s fellow ESPN colleague Rachel Nichols as part of an explosive article in the New York Times, are so disturbing. The comments, which Nichols unknowingly recorded in her hotel room during the NBA’s Orlando, FL bubble last year, left little doubt that Nichols, who is white, was concerned that the rise of Taylor, who is Black, would ultimately be at her expense.
ESPN executives made the decision that Taylor, who had already been hosting ESPN’s NBA Countdown show during the regular season, would be the host of the network’s coverage of the 2020 NBA Finals. It was a plum assignment that Nichols fully expected would be hers for the taking. With the news that it would be Taylor instead, Nichols was seeking advice on how to proceed from Adam Mendelsohn, an advisor to LeBron James and James’ agent, Rich Paul.
“I wish Maria Taylor all the success in the world—she covers football, she covers basketball,” Nichols told Mendelsohn during their July 2020 conversation. “If you [ESPN] 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.”
This is what happens when Black Excellence is, well, too excellent.
You get passive-aggressive comments like this which are complimentary to Taylor’s versatility as an on-air talent, but soon make a sharp pivot to allude to Taylor being rewarded because she’s Black while ignoring all the receipts (and Maria Taylor has plenty of them) showcasing her talent and undeniable acumen to do the job and doing it well.
There is no doubt that Nichols did not anticipate or expect her conversation to get out there for public consumption. But when allyship is more about convenience and not conviction, it should always be exposed. Nichols had no problem with Taylor’s rise, just as long as it didn’t affect her directly.
This here is yet another distinction between how Black and Brown media stars on the rise see those coming behind them. While Taylor’s status with the network has grown exponentially the last couple of years, she has done so with an eye towards helping those who are coming behind her who have also shown star potential.
In the New York Times piece, it mentions that, “Taylor also has given Malika Andrews, who is Black, a bigger role on NBA Countdown, which directly led to the latest internal tug of war.” The list of young women Taylor has helped jumpstart their careers is lengthy. This is what Black Excellence does, all the time.
As Black and Brown people continue to navigate through various doors professionally, we don’t do so without making sure we keep that door ajar for the next generation—even if it may be to our detriment.
As much as Taylor wants to continue ascending professionally, she knows all too well that her growth came on the shoulders of other Black female pioneers in the sports world such as Robin Roberts and Jayne Kennedy (Overton). That sense of awareness and connectivity, even if it comes at one’s own personal expense, is what separates Nichols’ “struggle” from Taylor’s journey.
As this story continues to play out, more and more layers will be revealed, shining a much brighter light on systemic issues within the four-letter network that understandably makes them uncomfortable.
Nichols would later weigh in on the ESPN culture. “Those same people—who are, like, generally white conservative male Trump voters—is part of the reason I’ve had a hard time at ESPN,” Nichols said during the July 2020 conversation. “I basically finally just outworked everyone for so long that they had to recognize it. I don’t want to then be a victim of them trying to play catch-up for the same damage that affected me in the first place, you know what I mean. So I’m trying to just be nice.”
Attempting to devalue Taylor’s accomplishments is not “nice.” Recognizing your own hard work while trying to minimize someone else’s track record of hard work and success by conflating it with a company’s lackluster record on diversity, is not “nice.”
Being an ally comes at a cost, plain and simple. Sometimes it’s parting ways with a childhood friend that an ally eventually finds out is racist who has no intentions of changing. Other times, it means responding to a company whose policies are undeniably bent against women, groups of color and other marginalized groups. And at times, it means actually having an assignment be given to someone else because they are on the rise and earned that opportunity, similar to how you may have taken on an assignment in part because of your work and, like Taylor, you too were on the come-up at that time.
The worst kind of allyship is the kind that smiles in your face, and stabs you in the back. Sadly, Black folks have seen this play out time and time again.
But this is the price that is paid when Black Excellence becomes too excellent.