NBA Finals host Maria Taylor parts ways with ESPN after racial controversy

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UGA grad expected to join NBC Sports

Sports commentator Maria Taylor, a rising star at ESPN who was at the forefront of the NBA Finals coverage this past week, has announced she is leaving the network after failing to reach an agreement on a new contract.

The 34-year-old Taylor, a University of Georgia graduate, is expected to join NBC Sports, where she will be part of the network’s Olympics coverage, according to the Los Angeles Times.

The decision, announced Wednesday in a joint press release from ESPN Chairman Jimmy Pitaro, came as no surprise weeks after a racial controversy erupted over comments by fellow host Rachel Nichols who last year suggested that Taylor was given a higher position at the network only because she is Black.

The controversy first sprang up at the network last July while Nichols was covering the NBA bubble in Orlando during the height of the pandemic.

Nichols was unaware that a video camera was rolling during a phone conversation in which she complained that Taylor had gotten the NBA Finals assignment because ESPN was “feeling pressure” about racial diversity, according to The New York Times, which first reported the story.

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Around this same time Nichols and Taylor were vying to host pregame and postgame shows during the network’s basketball coverage of the 2020 NBA Finals, a coveted staff position that Taylor was ultimately assigned to by the front office.

ESPN reporter Rachel Nichols stands on the court before a game between the Houston Rockets and the Dallas Mavericks at The Arena at ESPN Wide World Of Sports Complex in Lake Buena Vista, Florida. Nichols was caught on camera while making racist remarks about her coworker Maria Taylor.
Caption
ESPN reporter Rachel Nichols stands on the court before a game between the Houston Rockets and the Dallas Mavericks at The Arena at ESPN Wide World Of Sports Complex in Lake Buena Vista, Florida. Nichols was caught on camera while making racist remarks about her coworker Maria Taylor.

Credit: TNS

Credit: TNS

Her comments were recorded and automatically uploaded to an internal server at company headquarters in Bristol, Connecticut, where numerous ESPN employees had access to the footage. Soon a cellphone copy of the video was being shared among the staff, sparking widespread outrage behind the scenes.

It wasn’t long before the leaked video reached the brass, who began efforts to tamp down the controversy but ultimately declined to discipline Nichols.

After months of internal rumblings and threats by some of the network’s biggest on-air personalities to boycott the 2021 playoffs, ESPN finally removed Nichols as the courtside reporter for the NBA Finals and replaced her with Malika Andrews.

Nichols, who is white, also apologized during a recent opening of her show “The Jump.”

“So the first thing they teach in journalism school is don’t be the story. And I don’t plan to break that rule today or distract from a fantastic Finals, but I also don’t want to let this moment pass without saying how much I respect, how much I value our colleagues here at ESPN, how deeply, deeply sorry I am for disappointing those I hurt — particularly Maria Taylor — and how grateful I am to be part of this outstanding team.”

It was unclear whether the internal dispute played any role in the negotiations for Taylor’s contract extension, although voices at the network said the internal damage from the past year had been substantial.

Weeks ago, Taylor reportedly turned down an offer that would have paid her nearly $5 million.

Taylor gave a statement Wednesday but made no mention of the controversy.

“So thankful to Jimmy and all of my great teammates and friends at the SEC Network, College GameDay, Women’s and Men’s college basketball, and the NBA Countdown family — the people who believed in me, encouraged me, pushed me, and lifted me up,” Taylor said in a statement. “Words are inadequate to express my boundless appreciation, and I hope to make them proud.”

Last night’s title-clinching Game 6 of the NBA Finals turned out to be Taylor’s final assignment for ESPN.

She took center stage for the network throughout the series as the Milwaukee Bucks went on to win its first championship in 50 years, beating the Phoenix Suns 4 games to 2.

“Maria’s remarkable success speaks directly to her abilities and work ethic,” Pitaro said in a statement. “There is no doubt we will miss Maria, but we remain determined to continue to build a deep and skilled talent roster that thoroughly reflects the athletes we cover and the fans we serve. While she chose to pursue a new opportunity, we are proud of the work we’ve done together.”