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In Any Meritocracy, Maria Taylor Is No Rachel Nichols

“ ESPN’s haste to promote a younger Black host, over an accomplished White host, has again exposed a 21st-century disease in network TV and corporate America: Are optics all that matter anymore?”

Jay Mariotti

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I first met Rachel Nichols when she was Rachel Alexander, an intern at the Chicago Sun-Times as I was beginning 17 years of column-writing there. Back in the days when staffers actually met for beers, she’d hang out with us. And it was apparent then that she was a reporter first, not in it for the glamour, while later proving at the Washington Post that she could dominate beat coverage with probing questions and instinctive savvy.

Not surprisingly, her journalism skills drove her to stardom as a front-facing basketball host and sideline reporter at ESPN, where she gained the respect of all — viewers, players, coaches, her network bosses and colleagues — with hard work and source-accrued knowledge. I appreciated she was a journalist at heart, caring much more about the news she was breaking than aesthetic appeal. Anyone who has watched sports television in recent decades knows news isn’t usually the top priority, especially inside network management offices, where a Fox Sports NFL-studio-show director once fired a loaded question at me during a lunchtime job interview.

 “Do you know any blondes you could recommend?’’ he asked.

“Try any sportscast on local L.A. news,’’ I shot back, annoyingly. 

Nichols is not a blonde, becoming a prominent NBA media face based on merit and chops. And she should have been left alone in her dual capacities, as host not only of the daily program “The Jump’’ but the signature “NBA Countdown’’ show that wraps around game telecasts on ESPN and ABC. But inside those management offices, at Disney last year, pressure was mounting from outside influences — politics best ignored by the strongest and smartest bosses — to replace Nichols with Maria Taylor.     

Nichols is White. Taylor is Black.

In any meritocracy, Taylor is no Rachel Nichols. She has shown a robust presence as a sideline interviewer in college football, and she is lively when hosting NBA shows, but if Taylor has broken major news in her time at ESPN, please refresh my memory. A studio-show host must have a rich command of the stories discussed by panelists, and such expertise isn’t gathered by simply showing up and oozing personality. James Brown has broken stories on CBS’ pre-game show, “The NFL Today.’’ Rece Davis has done the same on the ESPN staple, “College GameDay,’’ as has Karl Ravech on ESPN’s coverage of Major League Baseball. Nichols had attained a similar level of authority through years on the job. Such an asset shouldn’t be scrapped because exterior forces want to make a diversity statement. 

But this is how sports TV — hell, corporate America — operates in the social tumult of the 21st century. All that matters are optics, not the wealth of ability or experience, which is why ESPN is dealing with yet another explosive racial story that paints Disney as a bumbling operation incapable of handling sensitive in-house issues. Sunday, the New York Times reported full details of a videotaped phone conversation between Nichols and Adam Mendelsohn — an influential American political operative and a well-known advisor to LeBron James and his powerful agent, Rich Paul — after Nichols learned that Taylor would replace her as “NBA Countdown’’ host during the 2020 Finals. 

Speaking from her hotel room at Walt Disney World last July, Nichols wasn’t aware while seeking advice from Mendelsohn that a remote camera and microphone were picking up the entirety of their conversation. The camera had been installed as it was for other ESPN personalities performing on-air work from non-traditional pandemic locations. It should have been a private chat, but never underestimate the snake quotient at ESPN or inside media companies in general. Any number of employees had access to the dialogue. Someone recorded it, then leaked it — first to the rogue website Deadspin last year, then recently to Deadspin alumnus Kevin Draper, a reporter at the Times. In their discussion, Nichols made the mistake of turning Taylor’s ascent into a racial matter. 

Yet given ESPN’s troubles with diversity scenarios through the years, was Nichols wrong in objecting to being made a corporate scapegoat? I say she had every right to be upset — and let’s remember, as her attorneys surely have emphasized, that she assumed the conversation was private, not recorded by a creep who eventually made certain it was heard by everybody who mattered in Bristol, including ESPN president Jimmy Pitaro.

 “I wish Maria Taylor all the success in the world — she covers football, she covers basketball,” Nichols told Mendelsohn. “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.”

It wasn’t Nichols’ place to be spilling her troubles to Mendelsohn when the reason for the call was a professional request: She wanted an interview with James and Lakers teammate Anthony Davis, also represented by Paul. But she elaborated anyway. “I just want them to go somewhere else,’’ she said. “It’s in my contract, by the way; this job is in my contract in writing.”

The NBA, of course, is a predominantly Black league overseen by a White commissioner, Adam Silver, and lorded over by mostly White owners. When Nichols complained to Mendelsohn — who helped James coordinate increased Black voting initiatives before a 2020 U.S. Presidential election that ousted Donald Trump — and he responded regrettably on the tape, the ramifications are high-reaching and not good for anyone, including ESPN and the NBA.

“I don’t. I’m exhausted,’’ Mendelsohn told Nichols. “Between Me Too and Black Lives Matter, I got nothing left.’’

If I view his comment as disingenuous, imagine how James, Paul, Silver, Taylor and a whole lot of people feel today. Especially when the 2021 Finals are starting Tuesday — as Taylor’s contract is expiring. Before the pandemic, she reportedly rejected an ESPN offer of more than $5 million annually, wanting a deal in line with network provocateur Stephen A. Smith, who reportedly makes $8 million a year. But now in a post-pandemic salary chop mode, the network made a recent offer to Taylor that reportedly is half the amount of its previous bid, as rivals such as Fox sniff blood. Will she get up from her studio seat in the middle of the Finals and leave? And how will her colleagues on “NBA Countdown’’ respond when, according to the Times, Jalen Rose, Jay Williams and Adrian Wojnarowski were among those on a recent call with Taylor that turned “acrimonious’’ — and nearly prompted a storm-off-the-set revolt — before Pitaro pacified the anger by phone at a family outing? 

The racial tension at ESPN reflects that of a divided America. And it only has been exacerbated by this story. How will America look at Nichols when it sees her? And Taylor? Will people take sides? Might it actually help ratings for a Finals matchup, between the Milwaukee Bucks and Phoenix Suns, that is among the least appealing in memory? Or will the drama turn off viewers?

Welcome to the sports media business, kids. If you wonder why so many ESPN people have glum looks, you’re seeing why. And if you wonder why I’m a smiling, healthy guy in my accompanying photo — after working at ESPN for eight years — you’re seeing why. I’ve told an important personal story before, and today, because it’s relevant within the Nichols-Taylor context, I’ll bring it back as I did last month and on other appropriate occasions.

In February of 2011, Howard Bryant was arrested by Massachusetts State Police. A talented senior writer and commentator at ESPN, he was accused of violently attacking his wife — charged with domestic assault and battery, assault and battery on a police officer and resisting arrest, according to a Boston Herald report. Witnesses told police that Bryant “grabbed his wife’s neck, pushed her into a parked vehicle and pinned her against it’’ outside a pizza shop. His wife didn’t press charges, saying she wasn’t abused, and ESPN president John Skipper — though a vocal champion of women’s rights — joined other ESPN executives in welcoming Bryant back to the fold. He continued to work in Bristol as a columnist and TV panelist for years.

Months earlier, while about to enter my ninth year as a regular panelist during the peak ratings period of ESPN’s “Around The Horn,’’ I was accused in a similar case. Bryant had told police that the network was “1,000 percent supportive’’ of him, which ended up being true, but the network was barely responsive to me. ESPN influenced the legal case and public perception by immediately separating from me and allowing fellow panelists to disparage me on air — before a charge had been filed or a lawyer had been hired. I prevailed in a civil case, and the entire matter was expunged years ago, but the network decision was final.

I am White. Bryant is Black.     

How do I know this was racial in nature? Because Skipper, during a future dinner session with me in Malibu, said “Around The Horn’’ desperately needed diversity among the panelists. I happened to agree — and in subsequent years, the show would be filled with diverse faces — but the transformation was conveniently done at my expense. I relate this story not out of bitterness. I want people to know how this business works.

It’s a twisted industry, sports media. I’m not even sure how much I trust Draper, the Times reporter. In 2016, I agreed to part amicably with the San Francisco Examiner when the ailing newspaper, owned by Canada interests, didn’t have the resources to fund my sports-coverage ambitions as an editor and columnist. We determined I would stay through the Super Bowl, hosted that year in the Bay Area, and I’d leave a few weeks after. I decided one day to air my feelings about a rival editor-in-chief, Audrey Cooper, who’d recklessly tweeted about my legal case when I arrived in town. I bit my lip for about a year, but having not been impressed by her leadership at the San Francisco Chronicle, I asserted that she had overly feminist leanings toward me and was driving her paper into the ground.

Still at Deadspin, Draper emailed me and assumed I’d been fired because of the tweet, which wasn’t true. He was a disciple of editor A.J. Daulerio, a drug-addled loon who was sued to smithereens by Hulk Hogan — the sex tape, remember? — and actually had contacted Examiner staffers when I was hired, offering money if they produced dirt on me. The publisher reacted properly, saying anyone who dealt with Daulerio would be fired. I warned Draper that if he lied about the timeline of my departure, I would “Hulk Hogan’’ him. He didn’t care, and next thing you knew, the Times was hiring him. Meanwhile, Cooper abruptly left the Chronicle and took an editor’s gig at New York public radio station WNYC, where she is being sued by a veteran healthcare reporter who says he was wrongfully fired and defamed.

His name: Fred Mogul, a 52-year-old White male.

In good conscience, I cannot encourage young people to enter this racket amid so many swirling, treacherous winds and so many shady people. I’m just thrilled to have had my successes and made my money starting when Rachel Alexander was hungry and diligent … and not when Rachel Nichols has to watch her back at all times, realizing no one has it.

BSM Writers

Being Wrong On-Air Isn’t A Bad Thing

…if you feel yourself getting uncomfortable over the fact that you were wrong, stop to realize that’s your pride talking. Your ego. And if people call you out for being wrong, it’s actually a good sign.

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WRONG BAD

In the press conference after the Warriors won their fourth NBA title in eight years, Steph Curry referenced a very specific gesture from a very specific episode of Get Up that aired in August 2021.

“Clearly remember some experts and talking heads putting up the big zero,” Curry said, then holding up a hollowed fist to one eye, looking through it as if it were a telescope.

“How many championships we would have going forward because of everything we went through.”

Yep, Kendrick Perkins and Domonique Foxworth each predicted the Warriors wouldn’t win a single title over the course of the four-year extension Curry had just signed. The Warriors won the NBA title and guess what? Curry gets to gloat.

The funny part to me was the people who felt Perkins or Foxworth should be mad or embarrassed. Why? Because they were wrong?

That’s part of the game. If you’re a host or analyst who is never wrong in a prediction, it’s more likely that you’re excruciatingly boring than exceedingly smart. Being wrong is not necessarily fun, but it’s not a bad thing in this business.

You shouldn’t try to be wrong, but you shouldn’t be afraid of it, either. And if you are wrong, own it. Hold your L as I’ve heard the kids say. Don’t try to minimize it or explain it or try to point out how many other people are wrong, too. Do what Kendrick Perkins did on Get Up the day after the Warriors won the title.

“When they go on to win it, guess what?” He said, sitting next to Mike Greenberg. “You have to eat that.”

Do not do what Perkins did later that morning on First Take.

Perkins: “I come on here and it’s cool, right? Y’all can pull up Perk receipts and things to that nature. And then you give other people a pass like J-Will.”

Jason Williams: “I don’t get passes on this show.”

Perkins: “You had to, you had a receipt, too, because me and you both picked the Memphis Grizzlies to beat the Golden State Warriors, but I’m OK with that. I’m OK with that. Go ahead Stephen A. I know you’re about to have fun and do your thing. Go ahead.”

Stephen A. Smith: “First of all, I’m going to get serious for a second with the both of you, especially you, Perk, and I want to tell you something right now. Let me throw myself on Front Street, we can sit up there and make fun of me. You know how many damn Finals predictions I got wrong? I don’t give a damn. I mean, I got a whole bunch of them wrong. Ain’t no reason to come on the air and defend yourself. Perk, listen man. You were wrong. And we making fun, and Steph Curry making fun of you. You laugh at that my brother. He got you today. That’s all. He got you today.”

It’s absolutely great advice, and if you feel yourself getting uncomfortable over the fact that you were wrong, stop to realize that’s your pride talking. Your ego. And if people call you out for being wrong, it’s actually a good sign. It means they’re not just listening, but holding on to what you say. You matter. Don’t ruin that by getting defensive and testy.

WORTH EVERY PENNY

I did a double-take when I saw Chris Russo’s list of the greatest QB-TE combinations ever on Wednesday and this was before I ever got to Tom Brady-to-Rob Gronkowski listed at No. 5. It was actually No. 4 that stopped me cold: Starr-Kramer.

My first thought: Jerry Kramer didn’t play tight end.

My second thought: I must be unaware of this really good tight end from the Lombardi-era Packers.

After further review, I don’t think that’s necessarily true, either. Ron Kramer did play for the Lombardi-era Packers, and he was a good player. He caught 14 scoring passes in a three-year stretch where he really mattered, but he failed to catch a single touchdown pass in six of the 10 NFL seasons he played. He was named first-team All-Pro once and finished his career with 229 receptions.

Now this is not the only reason that this is an absolutely terrible list. It is the most egregious, however. Bart Starr and Kramer are not among the 25 top QB-TE combinations in NFL history let alone the top five. And if you’re to believe Russo’s list, eighty percent of the top tandems played in the NFL in the 30-year window from 1958 to 1987 with only one tandem from the past 30 years meriting inclusion when this is the era in which tight end production has steadily climbed.

Then I found out that Russo is making $10,000 per appearance on “First Take.”

My first thought: You don’t have to pay that much to get a 60-something white guy to grossly exaggerate how great stuff used to be.

My second thought: That might be the best $10,000 ESPN has ever spent.

Once a week, Russo comes on and draws a reaction out of a younger demographic by playing a good-natured version of Dana Carvey’s Grumpy Old Man. Russo groans to JJ Redick about the lack of fundamental basketball skills in today’s game or he proclaims the majesty of a tight end-quarterback pairing that was among the top five in its decade, but doesn’t sniff the top five of all-time.

And guess what? It works. Redick rolls his eyes, asks Russo which game he’s watching, and on Wednesday he got me to spend a good 25 minutes looking up statistics for some Packers tight end I’d never heard of. Not satisfied with that, I then moved on to determine Russo’s biggest omission from the list, which I’ve concluded is Philip Rivers and Antonio Gates, who connected for 89 touchdowns over 15 seasons, which is only 73 more touchdowns than Kramer scored in his career. John Elway and Shannon Sharpe should be on there, too.

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BSM Writers

Money Isn’t The Key Reason Why Sellers Sell Sports Radio

I started selling sports radio because I enjoyed working with clients who loved sports, our station, and wanted to reach fans with our commercials and promotions.

Jeff Caves

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Radio Sales

A radio salesperson’s value being purely tied to money is overrated to me. Our managers all believe that our main motivation for selling radio is to make more money. They see no problem in asking us to sell more in various ways because it increases our paycheck. We are offered more money to sell digital, NTR, to sell another station in the cluster, weekend remotes, new direct business, or via the phone in 8 hours. 

But is that why you sell sports radio?

In 2022, the Top 10 highest paying sales jobs are all in technology. Not a media company among them. You could argue that if it were all about making money, we should quit and work in tech. Famous bank robber Willie Sutton was asked why he robbed twenty banks over twenty years. He reportedly said,” that’s where the money is”. Sutton is the classic example of a person who wanted what money could provide and was willing to do whatever it took to get it, BUT he also admitted he liked robbing banks and felt alive. So, Sutton didn’t do it just for the money.

A salesperson’s relationship with money and prestige is also at the center of the play Death of a Salesman. Willy Loman is an aging and failing salesman who decides he is worth more dead than alive and kills himself in an auto accident giving his family the death benefit from his life insurance policy. Loman wasn’t working for the money. He wanted the prestige of what money could buy for himself and his family. 

Recently, I met a woman who spent twelve years selling radio from 1999-2011. I asked her why she left her senior sales job. She said she didn’t like the changes in the industry. Consolidation was at its peak, and most salespeople were asked to do more with less help. She described her radio sales job as one with “golden handcuffs”. The station paid her too much money to quit even though she hated the job. She finally quit. The job wasn’t worth the money to her.

I started selling sports radio because I enjoyed working with clients who loved sports, our station, and wanted to reach fans with our commercials and promotions. I never wanted to sell anything else and specifically enjoyed selling programming centered around reaching fans of Boise State University football. That’s it. Very similar to what Mark Glynn and his KJR staff experience when selling Kraken hockey and Huskies football.  

I never thought selling sports radio was the best way to make money. I just enjoyed the way I could make money. I focused on the process and what I enjoyed about the position—the freedom to come and go and set my schedule for the most part. I concentrated on annual contracts and clients who wanted to run radio commercials over the air to get more traffic and build their brand.

Most of my clients were local direct and listened to the station. Some other sales initiatives had steep learning curves, were one-day events or contracted out shaky support staff. In other words, the money didn’t motivate me enough. How I spent my time was more important. 

So, if you are in management, maybe consider why your sales staff is working at the station. Because to me, they’d be robbing banks if it were all about making lots of money.  

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BSM Writers

Media Noise: BSM Podcast Network Round Table

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Demetri Ravanos welcomes the two newest members of the BSM Podcast Network to the show. Brady Farkas and Stephen Strom join for a roundtable discussion that includes the new media, Sage Steele and Roger Goodell telling Congress that Dave Portnoy isn’t banned from NFL events.

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