The Rachel Nichols Conversation

On the Insanity of Ignoring Private Life

Our recent social history has been defined by movements that trend on Twitter, but those movements all exist under the umbrella of a bigger phenomenon: The movement to never question that day’s movement. 

Whatever the cause of the moment, the mandate is the same: Submit to the socially approved passion and hide any objections. I mean, you had better. You don’t want to be fired, right? So live two lives if possible, the outward vs. the backchannel. Also don’t ever get caught in your duality. While a human might be expected to have an inside and an outside voice, you’re up against a robot, an algorithm, an antibeing. You must pretend until you are no longer pretending, until you’re simply responding to commands like an operating system. In the end, you must not have preferences. You must only mirror them. 

Rachel Nichols, now ex-host of The Jump on ESPN, lost her show in large part due to her questioning of top-down choices theoretically made in the name of diversity. First, she was pulled from the NBA Finals. As of last Thursday, she’s been pulled off the air completely. Her offending comments didn’t happen on Zoom, or in the company Slack channel. They happened in a private phone conversation that was being secretly recorded by another employee. And yet, those are the breaks.

The point of this post isn’t to drum up sympathy for Nichols, though I do like Rachel and personally wouldn’t want to be in this particular maelstrom. This is more about how public-facing people are tangled up in an arbitrary etiquette, wherein grievances are cynically leveraged so as to achieve advancement. You don’t have to like Rachel or The Jump to notice that public incentives have trended “antihuman” for a while now. We are making demands on people that just aren’t tenable. That was clear when it became common practice to fire people over old tweets or decade-old podcast snippets. This Rachel Nichols situation is a new frontier in anti-humanity though. Should you really punish someone for their privately expressed, normal preferences? Well, it’s happening.


Rachel on the Rise

Many moons ago, in a more optimistic epoch, the NBA was negotiating its TV deal with ESPN. Apart from “over two billion dollars a year, please” the league had a simple request: We need a daily show, dedicated to our sport and our sport alone. NBA commissioner Adam Silver was finicky when it came to the way ESPN presented his game — opinionated and pissed off, even. He wanted his damn sport to have a showcase. Other leagues had it, so why not the NBA? Theirs was the culturally ascendant game, the one capable of dominating on social media as other leagues fumbled around with the new technologies. If ESPN wanted to be part of the future, it had better promote the sport of the future. 

The Jump, hosted by Rachel Nichols, began in the first year of the new TV contract, in 2016. Back then, Nichols symbolized that sense of present and possibility the NBA was looking for. Silver’s people worried about the reach limitations of NBA ambassadors like, say, old mainstay Hubie Brown. Rachel was the antidote to ossification. She arrived at the scene on fire, having gained acclaim for backing Roger Goodell into painful contortions. I would add that, on the ground level, Rachel is a ubiquitous force. She’s an extreme extrovert who will confidently bend the ear of the celebrities who sit sideline, but remains anchored in the world of writers. On the NBA Finals social circuit, you’ll usually see Rachel at the bar with a crew of scribes from her Gen X cohort (I hope Howard Beck and Jeff Zillgitt don’t mind being namechecked here). So she moves between worlds a lot, and quickly: From the locker room to the media room to the C-suite, to celebrity row on the sideline. To the suits, and really, everybody else, she seemed perfectly suited for bridging divides and bringing the NBA into the future. Adam Silver, who was obsessed around that time with making the NBA new and relevant, was a fan. 

Roughly five years later, as the sharks circled Nichols’ career, it was Silver who spoke up to support Nichols. He didn’t have to do it, and he was a lonely voice among the influential. It wasn’t enough. 

On August 26, Nichols had her show and other ESPN duties scrapped, seemingly due to the phone call from July of 2020. The conversation, in which Nichols and Adam Mendelsohn, an advisor to LeBron James, riffed on ESPN’s hasty attempts to diversify, was surreptitiously recorded by a fellow ESPN employee and disseminated within the company to turbulent effect. Specifically, Nichols (White) spoke of ESPN replacing her on the NBA Finals set with Maria Taylor (Black), despite her contract’s promise of that job. The story burned slow before popping off on July 4, in a New York Times article by Kevin Draper. Taylor’s anger towards Nichols appears to be a constant of the story, one that preceded the July 4th bombshell and continued on further. 

Looking at transcript excerpts from the phone call, it reads like extremely liberal people expressing the mildest of misgivings about corporate social justice panic. The reality almost doesn’t matter now, because the legend of what happened takes on a life of its own. Somehow this was the main offending paragraph from the conversation:

“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.”

At the time, in those heady days of July 2020, Nichols was trying to defend her position as NBA Finals host, as she said was contractually promised. Nichols’ implication is just that she’d prefer some other un-diverse person to lose their gig, which, in a different universe, with different moral codes, would be considered the offensive part. “Just find it somewhere else,” she says. That’s a somewhat callous disregard for “person to be named later,” who gets it because ESPN needs a blood sacrifice. Hilariously, though, nobody important cares about that part. The sin, according to the media, is that she’s just not personally, overwhelmingly ready to sacrifice her ambition at the altar of Maria Taylor’s. 

The other supposedly salacious excerpt was Nichols laughing at Mendelsohn’s quip, which was at follows: 

“I don’t know. I’m exhausted. Between Me Too and Black Lives Matter, I got nothing left.” 

Mendelsohn’s job is to navigate reputations through the storms of social change, so these movements are relevant to his efforts. It’s obvious to anyone paying attention that these movements, whatever the importance one imbues them with, are the Swords of Damocles in professional class life. Few can really relax when discussing them publicly, so you let off a little steam in private and indulge your duality. Mendelsohn and Nichols laugh precisely because one isn’t allowed to. There’s a theory that comedy hinges on “benign violations.” In private, the violation is benign. But in public? Not so much, I guess.  

Among the careers touched include those of Taylor (who departed ESPN after playing hardball in contract negotiations; now at NBC), Malika Andrews (promoted as something of a replacement for Nichols), Jalen Rose (whose role is now in question, following his in-studio advocacy for Taylor’s contract plus his daughter’s publicly attacking Nichols), and Adrian Wojnawroski (cited in Draper’s article as calling Nichols a bad teammate; his power now further consolidated in ESPN’s NBA sphere with Nichols marginalized).

Situations like this remind me of why I started the Substack. The beauty of this gig is I have no boss, apart from you, the reader. There’s no media company filter on what I find relevant here. I can freely note that Nichols, Taylor, Andrews, Rose and Wojnarowski are all currently or at least very recently repped by Creative Artists Agency, which isn’t exactly the type of thing one can say at a traditional institution. 

(That’s five-for-five, by the way. At what point can we admit that something rather odd and unprecedented has happened with ESPN and CAA? But I digress.)

So when this story went down, I was primed for it to be a top-down CAAnon conspiracy. Going in, I knew that Wojnarowski had issues with Nichols, so I figured maybe he pushed her out as part of his quest for full control. After making some phone calls, I don’t think that’s what happened. From my conversations at the very important and serious House of Strauss news desk, I’m not getting Woj and CAA as culprits here. The bad blood couldn’t have helped matters, but it didn’t seem decisive. No, this one likely came from the ESPN executive tier, chairman Jimmy Pitaro specifically. You know, the way decisions are typically made in a normal company, where the big boss makes personnel choices. But why did it happen? And how did it happen in the first place?


The Spy

Let’s go back to the phone call itself and how this came out into the world. To the best of my knowledge, here is the process by which Nichols’ ESPN career got derailed. I tell it because I’m not sure it’s been well told in the media, which has spread the “hot mic” scenario. So here goes. 

For doing TV hits, ESPN’s system requires an iPad to run a special camera app. The app has to not only be connected to the Internet but also separately connected into a special feed that goes to the Bristol servers. Because this is the 1970’s Soviet Republic of Bristolvia, the feed costs money every time it is used, so it’s set up in specific windows. Producers set those windows and talent is not involved in that decision, nor does talent know how long the feed to Bristol is active. 

Nichols finished her live shots, which is the cue for the producer to kill the feed. That’s at least what’s happened for me whenever I finished my live shots back in those heady Warriors dynasty days. God knows the totality of crazy shit I said after my liveshots back then, but I specifically remember withering conversations with the camera crew about their least favorite ESPN people to work with. When you’re an insecure fraud of an aspiring famous person, there’s nothing better than feeling morally superior to the actual pros. 

Anyway, Rachel had the iPad on, under the assumption that her night was over. Various calls were made, including to her children and her doctor. All of this personal information was going into a Bristol feed, as an eavesdropper lay in wait. When Rachel started dishing on company hiring decisions, recordings were made by an as yet unnamed person. 

This is an unseemly violation of privacy that nobody in the media now feels all that compelled to criticize when fulminating about Nichols’ shortcomings. Why are you watching and recording someone who clearly believes they are alone? Is this not taking advantage of another human being in a vulnerable state? There’s this exchange on NPR, where the broadcaster smugly says, “Always be aware of the hot mic,” as though you’re supposed to expect getting spied on by your own company, via an app. That part isn’t relevant in the media conversation, though. We are presented with the story as though the story’s existence arises from an oblivious lack of caution. The implication is that it’s Nichols’ fault for getting violated. These are the new, creepy rules for when the person spying on you is successful in obtaining moral contraband. The media backs their transgression as the ends justifying the means.


 

Ambition’s Limit

What’s a little funny about the nuclear response to Nichols’ leaked comments is how often I’ve heard far more transgressive statements from ESPN’s white guy TV talent. Ever since the John Skipper days, there’s been a loudly advertised demand for increased diversity at ESPN. The best display of the Skipper Doctrine happened in February 2016 at Re/code’s media conference. Skipper announced, “There is not enough Black media in this country. There is not enough Black-owned media in this country. There are not enough sites run by people of color.” That presentation of a problem swiftly turned into a brag. Skipper wanted the room to know that ESPN had 74 of the nation’s 85 national sports writers who were women or people of color. He closed with a condemnation: “Shame on the rest of the press media.” 

Shame on you! Hooray for us! Within two years, Skipper would be gone on account of a cocaine extortion plot, but the diversification doctrine certainly remained. Skipper’s ethos on diversity, bombastic and self congratulatory though it was, was also somewhat endearing in its hopeful naivete. The energetic liberal boomer CEO talked and acted as though the racial issues were solvable with just the right amount of ambition and attention. And when I say Skipper is a boomer, I should probably be spelling it with a capital “B.” He’s a self-described “old hippie,” who “grew up wanting to be countercultural,” and “worked at Rolling Stone for the first 10 years of my professional life.” He came from a generation that had enough idealism and enough starting success to believe it could remake the world according to its moral ambitions. God love the boomers; They’re ridiculous, but we’ll miss them when they’re gone.  

In contrast, Skipper’s replacement, Gen X Jimmy Pitaro, just comes off like a defeated man on diversity issues, cynically mumbling the same stock phrases everyone else does in corporate America on “needing to do better.” “We are going to speak through our actions here, and we are going to improve,” he says. “If we don’t, it is on me, I failed, because it does all start with me.” He’s practically pre-apologizing. “Please don’t hurt me” as policy. 

Pitaro likely knows what everyone else knows by now: This is neverending. There is no victory, no parade for Jimmy McNulty. It’s a lot of prostration but no salvation. Most people in power have internalized this. This is a situation to be managed, not a problem to be conquered. 

Still, you publicly placate anyone who’s unhappy with your efforts and certainly tell the New York Times whatever it wants to hear, but goals are spoken more in sorrow than sanguine. A half decade ago, John Skipper could actually get good press out of increasing his company’s diversity. Now, corporations work towards similar ends, anticipating only the hammer regardless of outcome. Yet, companies are responsive to the “all stick, no carrot” approach from the media, marching forward in one direction. 

The extent to which demographic considerations dictate hiring decisions is debatable and pretty unknowable. It seems to have accelerated of late, with L'affaire Nichols serving as illustrative data point. At my last stop, White industry guys would call me, inquiring about job openings because they didn’t trust ESPN to actually want them. Over the past couple years, I heard more specific instances of agents telling their media member clients that census category was hurting their chances. Sure there have always been grumblings and assumptions regarding who gets put on and why, but that talk is more specific these days, even if it all happens in the backchannel. That’s a recent shift. 

You can dismiss this as false, sour grapes, or even cosmic justice, if that’s your bent. I’m just informing you that the majority of White guy ESPN talent operates under the assumption of not being wanted, prima facie. Some from this cohort even have the audacity to (gasp!) not like that status very much. You’d think the type of super-ambitious person who makes their life about getting on TV would just happily, thanklessly give away career chances for social justice, but apparently not. Wild times outside of the social media feedback loop, lemme tell ya. 

Since someone will probably read what’s above and accuse me of believing I was discriminated against, let me just say: I never really experienced it, at least not to my knowledge. Maybe if I had real ambitions I would have felt it at some level, but that day never came. No HR director could subvert me better than I could undermine myself, leaving work phones in Ubers to avoid getting SportsCenter hit requests. You see, doing TV at ESPN is interminably time-consuming, a neverending marathon of “hurry up and wait.” The system is such that you can’t just do a little bit of TV either. You’re either available all the time, or you’re off the list. Starve or explode. What I’m saying is, you have to really want it. In many cases, you have to not only be good but exceptionally driven. Rachel Nichols is driven. You don’t get to her spot as national TV host without that fuel. Maria Taylor probably has it as well. I can say with confidence that Malika Andrews, Nichols’ replacement, is extremely tough-minded and career-focused. It’s just a prerequisite to play at that level. 

So, in private, in service to her career, Nichols committed a Kinsley gaffe: The mistake of telling an obvious truth you aren’t allowed to say. I mean, does anybody doubt that scared poodle ESPN executives were running around in the heavy summer of 2020, desperately making hasty decisions to alter their on-air demography? Does anyone disbelieve this? 


Embarrassing the Bosses

To hear the media tell it, Rachel Nichols got forced out because she offended Black people. Contrarian take here, but I believe, based on various conversations, that Nichols is out because she offended White people — specifically, the White people who run ESPN. 

Let’s look at the main comment again (emphasis mine):

“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.”

And let’s look at this other comment (emphasis mine):

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. 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.”

The most damning thing Rachel Nichols said wasn’t about Maria Taylor. It was about her bosses and their purely reactive decision-making. Do you think these bosses unheard those comments? Taylor and other colleagues might have been mad at Nichols, but she did not explicitly “disparage” the other host as the New York Times framed it. She quite literally, explicitly disparaged the ESPN executive tier. She clenched her teeth in a dark room and accidentally bit the hand that feeds. 

Embarrass the family and get the wrath. Of course, Nichols didn’t get drunk at a wedding and go off. She was talking on the phone, in private, while getting spied on. But people can’t unhear what they heard once comments break containment and hers were statements that undermined the bosses’ pretensions of serious morality. You’re not supposed to see that they make these decisions to atone for their own failings, but she let that one slip. And so these bosses were displeased, on behalf of themselves, even if it’s more fashionable to be offended on behalf of someone else. Overall, this incident is a great synecdoche of modern politics. You hide whatever you wanted to do, for whatever cynical reasons, inside the taboos of our age. 


Imaginary Train

An underrated aspect of this story is that it’s a bit of a self-licking ice cream cone. The original Rachel phone call was inspired by ESPN machinations inspired by this critical piece on the Worldwide Leader’s diversity status. The first article on ESPN’s general issues was the domino that set up subsequent dramas for the New York Times to report on. Not that the NYT could have seen the results coming or that they should have ignored the results as they happened. It’s just funny how a certain style of journalistic probing leads to self inflicted cascades within the corporation. 

Looking back, the funniest subplot of ESPN’s angst-ridden cascades was that the New York Times readers themselves didn’t appear to give a shit about the original story. Yes, self-selected liberal purchasers of the Times rated this as the most liked top comment on ESPN Employees Say Racism Endures Behind the Camera

“The NYT's, WaPo and Boston Globe have turned into newspapers where every other story is about systemic racism. It has reached the point of absurdity.”

This is how five other top rated comments on the story begin:

“Not particularly fair or balanced representation of what has occurred and what is going on at ESPN,” “

Could it be that people tuning in to ESPN want to get sports and highlights, not politically tinged conversation?” 

“Does anyone here watch ESPN? There are a litany of black and women hosts and talking heads. A ton.”

“I’m all for diversity but it’s beginning to feel like that’s supposed to be the number one objective of all institutions and organizations.”

“Who cares about talent. Who cares about credibility Just make the numbers work!”

None actually praise the article, even among the few that share its ideological presumptions, and most criticize the article premise directly. Again, this is from a self selected (paying) audience that’s overwhelmingly liberal. And yet ESPN hastily reacted, as though besieged. It reminds of Wesley Yang’s tweet on trains in the very first movies:

“It is said that the first movie audiences ran in terror from the image of an approaching train, believing it to be real. Similarly, the first people and institutions, exposed to social media mobs groveled at the sight of what appeared to be an overwhelming consensus.”

The Anti-Human Expectation

So, what did we learn from this mess? For one, from a follow-up New York Times story on the Nichols fallout:

“Multiple Black ESPN employees said they told one another after hearing the conversation that it confirmed their suspicions that outwardly supportive white people talk differently behind closed doors.”

I’m here to confirm those confirmed suspicions, and refer anyone to my article on preference falsification. Nobody likes feeling lied to, even if I’d argue that Nichols didn’t exactly disavow diversity in her conversation; She just didn’t want to be the one to pay for it in the specific. But let’s say she revealed the hollowness of her support when her own job was on the line. And? 

Do we expect people to sacrifice aspects of their careers for the sake of a battle we’ve internalized as unwinnable? Apparently, in lieu of that impossible victory, you’re just supposed to let this social justice conquer your soul, submitting to it even when nobody else is around. Forget succeeding to the best of your ability. Just know that you’re taking up space and live a life of self-abnegation. Is that the realistic ask here?

The demand that people give up on their own dreams in service of an endless cause reminds me of E.O. Wilson’s description of communism: “Great idea. Wrong species.”

As in, there are animals that display such selflessness, but we are not them. We will not remake humanity into something that fundamentally subverts its own ambitions. We can tell people to be kinder, ask them to be more empathetic, and instruct institutions to think outside the same old boxes. But forcing people to refrain from success on the basis of their demography? And additionally, punishing even their private objections? If that’s tenable at all, it’s only for the briefest of epochs. It just cuts against the grain of the human spirit. 

I want to return to Adam Silver’s attempt at helping Rachel Nichols, because it is instructive in a way. In defense of Rachel, Silver recognized that people, "especially long-term employees that are in good standing" make mistakes. He said,

“Employees that are in good standing, that when they do make comments that people recognize that people make mistakes — that careers shouldn’t be erased by a single comment.”

Okay, but were Nichols’ comments “a mistake”? She was compelled to apologize like they were, under pressure from the company, I’ll note. But were the comments actually a mistake? Leftists and rightists alike would argue that she was hoisted on her own petard — that after years of virtue signaling, her pretensions were laid bare before all. Hypocrisy gets invoked as an excuse not to sympathize. Fair enough, but I don’t think Rachel Nichols made a mistake. I think she made a choice. It happened to be the obvious one, by the way. The mistake is what we make when we pretend that people are going to transcend their own basic humanity in favor of social justice’s diminishing returns. It ain’t happening and insofar as it does, it will just be for show.