By:
July 22, 2021

We all saw this coming: Maria Taylor is leaving ESPN.

Who could blame her?

Already established as a supremely talented TV broadcaster, Taylor, 34, also has a sky’s-the-limit future. Her star, in many ways, is just rising. Yet her departure closes the door on what has been an uncomfortable, ugly and mismanaged chapter for ESPN.

The mess actually started a year ago but didn’t become public until earlier this month when The New York Times’ Kevin Draper reported comments made by another ESPN broadcaster, Rachel Nichols. In July 2020, Nichols was staying at a hotel near Orlando inside the NBA bubble created because of COVID-19. Nichols was talking on a phone with one of LeBron James’ representatives and was not aware her conversation was being recorded on a video camera she was using to tape her TV show, “The Jump.” The Times obtained a copy of the conversation, in which Nichols, who is white, complained that Taylor, who is Black, was selected over Nichols to host the network’s NBA Finals coverage, including the pregame show “NBA Countdown.”

On the call, Nichols said, “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.”

The comment quickly spread throughout ESPN and the fallout from Nichols’ suggestion that Taylor would be given hosting duties because she is Black caused so much tension that Taylor and others threatened to boycott “NBA Countdown.” Nichols, who apologized on “The Jump” for what she said, was ultimately removed as a sideline reporter for this year’s NBA Finals. She continues to host “The Jump.”

With all this as a backdrop, Taylor’s contract was expiring. And, just days before the Times story ran, the New York Post’s Andrew Marchand wrote a story saying Taylor had turned down a hefty raise offer of $5 million (from her current salary of $1 million) because she wanted “Stephen A. Smith money” — upward of $8 million a year. The timing of the Post story led to speculation that ESPN, aware that the Times’ bombshell story was about to break, leaked the contract story to make Taylor look bad.

True or not, damage was done. At that point, it would appear as if Taylor’s trust that ESPN had her back had eroded to the point that she felt she could no longer stay.

ESPN put out a statement Wednesday, just a day after Taylor wrapped her NBA Finals duties, saying Taylor’s departure was mutual after a contract extension could not be reached.

In that statement, Jimmy Pitaro — chairman of ESPN and Sports Content — said, “Maria’s remarkable success speaks directly to her abilities and work ethic. 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.”

In the same statement, also released by ESPN, Taylor said, “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. Words are inadequate to express my boundless appreciation, and I hope to make them proud.”

The Times’ Draper tweeted, “I can’t remember seeing a press release this terse. Just three sentences and a quote each from Pitaro and Taylor. Wonder how long that took to negotiate.”

This is a blow to ESPN, and not just from a public relations standpoint. Not only was Taylor an excellent NBA host, she was a valuable asset on the network’s college football and women’s basketball coverage. ESPN certainly will move forward and remains bigger than just one person. But it will miss Taylor and, more so, it all seems so unnecessary.

ESPN had more than a year to figure out how to make both Taylor and Nichols happy in their roles, more than a year to deal with Nichols’ comments, and more than a year to make things right with Taylor, who has been nothing but publicly classy throughout it all.

Yet the network seemed almost paralyzed. Maybe some of that had to do with the fact that Nichols had been taped without her knowledge. Whatever the case, Nichols’ indefensible comments were not new to ESPN and Taylor, and yet were still a source of tension a year after they were made.

And so it ends with ESPN watching an elite talent walk out the door, just like it did with Jemele Hill.

By the way, as she often does when a high-profile person leaves ESPN, Hill tweeted a short video of Morgan Freeman’s character walking out of the prison in “The Shawshank Redemption” and said, “Congrats @MariaTaylor. See you on the other side.”

What’s next for Taylor?

Reports are that Taylor will end up with NBC, perhaps even in time to be at the Olympics, which are starting this week. She also seems like a natural fit on NBC’s NFL coverage.

What’s next for ESPN?

So who replaces Taylor on ESPN’s “NBA Countdown?” Probably not Nichols, according to several reports, including from Marchand.

Front Office Sports’ Michael McCarthy reported that ESPN NBA sideline reporter Malika Andrews is a “strong candidate to succeed” Taylor as host of “NBA Countdown.” But Andrews has no hosting experience. McCarthy wrote that other internal candidates might include Cassidy Hubbarth, “SportsCenter” anchor Elle Duncan, and former “NBA Countdown” host Sage Steele.

Dallas Morning News’ new editor

The Dallas Morning News has selected Katrice Hardy as its new editor. Hardy is currently the executive editor of The Indianapolis Star and the Midwest regional editor for the USA Today Network. That includes overseeing two dozen other newsrooms, including The (Louisville) Courier-Journal. According to The Dallas Morning News’ Maria Halkias, Hardy becomes the first woman and Black journalist to run the Morning News’ newsroom.

Morning News publisher Grant Moise told Halkias, “We conducted a very thorough search to find the best executive editor in the country and I am confident we found that person in Katrice. Throughout the search, it became increasingly clear she is the ideal person to fill this important role.”

Hardy told the Morning News, “A news organization serves no purpose if it’s not producing work that makes a difference in the lives of those it covers. And that’s what I’m excited about doing more of with the talented staff at The Dallas Morning News.”

Hardy starts her new job Aug. 12. She replaces Mike Wilson, who stepped down last September and is now the deputy editor for enterprise in the sports department of The New York Times.

The future of Jeff Zucker

CNN chief executive Jeff Zucker. (Photo by Jason Mendez/Invision/AP, File)

Intriguing headline on a story by Brian Steinberg in Variety: “WarnerMedia Hasn’t Focused on Replacing Jeff Zucker, Opening Chance for Executive to Stay.”

Zucker had indicated he would step down from running CNN by the end of the year. But in his latest piece, Steinberg writes, “With a little more than five months to go, however, five people inside and outside the company who would have typically have knowledge of the parameters of an executive search say they are not aware of one taking place, lending ballast to the notion that Zucker may have reason to stay into 2022.”

Zucker is still indicating he plans to leave by the end of the year. But with the planned merger between WarnerMedia and Discovery, Zucker could stick around until all the loose ends are tied. That could take well into 2022.

Check out Steinberg’s story for more details.

Media tidbits

“NBC Nightly News” anchor Lester Holt. (AP Photo/Richard Drew)

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Have feedback or a tip? Email Poynter senior media writer Tom Jones at tjones@poynter.org.

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Tom Jones is Poynter’s senior media writer for Poynter.org. He was previously part of the Tampa Bay Times family during three stints over some 30…
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