At 12:12 Tuesday, ESPN dropped their press release detailing their NBA Finals coverage plans. Very few press releases from ESPN have been as eagerly awaited given the current backdrop of the ongoing Rachel Nichols and Maria Taylor bombshell story.
What we learned in that release was that Maria Taylor would indeed host ESPN’s pregame show, NBA Countdown, as she did last year. However, Rachel Nichols would not be the sideline reporter for this year’s finals as she was last year, with Malika Andrews now getting that assignment. Per the release, the beleaguered Nichols would continue to host The Jump, on weekdays throughout the Finals, effectively taking her off any actual NBA Finals broadcast duties entirely.
Only a handful of hours since that press release, we’re already beginning to see a change of plans. Tuesday’s The Jump did not air as planned. Instead the hour slot on ESPN2 (because of the Euros airing on ESPN) was replaced with Jalen & Jacoby and Highly Questionable. Andrew Marchand reports we may see The Jump return tomorrow. I’m not so sure.
ESPN said, “We believe this is best decision for all concerned in order to keep the focus on the NBA Finals. Rachel will continue to host The Jump.”
— Andrew Marchand (@AndrewMarchand) July 6, 2021
NEWS: ESPN canceled Rachel Nichols' The Jump for today, The Post has learned.
The plan is to have it on tomorrow.
— Andrew Marchand (@AndrewMarchand) July 6, 2021
The Jump did air on Monday and Nichols did offer an apology, one that did very little to stop the snowballing controversy. So why the cancellation today?
A very real possibility could be that given the fragile nature of the situation, other ESPN employees are hesitant to go on the show with Nichols and attach themselves to the controversy. Both Kendrick Perkins and Richard Jefferson were on with Nichols yesterday and defended her. Both were engulfed with criticism for doing so, to the point Perkins took to social media to explain his participation on the show.
Part 2 of Kendrick Perkins defending his appearance on “The Jump” during Rachel Nichols apology pic.twitter.com/rcrZHcLn5L
— gifdsports (@gifdsports) July 6, 2021
There is certainly a chance this begins to boil over a bit and Nichols returns to hosting The Jump tomorrow and the rest of the series. Hell, maybe even months from now, this explosive controversy dies down and fades away. I don’t think that’s going to be the case though.
ESPN is exactly where they’ve attempted to avoid being at all costs under Jimmy Pitaro—right in the middle of a culture wars controversy with passionate people on both the left and the right absolutely savaging them. There are in damage-control mode. Behind the scenes, it’s chaos. There are no good options, and you have to pick the least bad one.
Do not mistake this as me calling for a firing or cancellation — I'm absolutely not — but we all know where this is heading with Rachel Nichols. You just wonder how long ESPN will string this out and how many timeslot changes and reassignments will happen along the way.
— Sports Media Watch (@paulsen_smw) July 6, 2021
Removing Nichols entirely for the rest of the Finals is a very real possibility. Perhaps even likely at this point. ESPN just wants the bleeding to stop, and this might be their best shot at containing the story as it continues to drip, drip, and drip every day.
The larger question though is can/would ESPN bring back Rachel Nichols next season if Maria Taylor is no longer at ESPN? Taylor has a few weeks left on her contract and things currently, and perhaps permanently, seem to be unreconcilable at this point. We’ll see, and we’ll see very soon.
If Taylor does depart the network, it’s going to be a huge loss for ESPN, even if we don’t consider the circumstances that led to her exit. Taylor is a HUGE and highly talented asset for ESPN spanning NBA, college football, WNBA , and potentially even more NFL duties. But factoring in the circumstances in which she may exit, it’s not just a huge loss but a lasting scandal, one that would linger over ESPN for years to come.
ESPN would certainly do their best to spin the exit. And they are very accomplished in cleaning up a lot of these high-profile exits. But this is a pretty unprecedented situation, and one that no PR janitorial staff and crisis response team can fix.
Nichols returning with Taylor departing would infinitely keep the wounds open. In my opinion, the anger over this is too raw and too widespread for that outcome to work, regardless of the exact specifics of how and why Taylor could leave and how much ESPN may fight for Nichols. I’m not sure ESPN would even stomach a flipped scenario of Taylor staying at ESPN and Nichols leaving given the implications there either.
Losing both Taylor and Nichols would be a massive blow for ESPN, but that’s arguably the most likely outcome at this point. The possibility seems insane to say out loud given both stars’ history, talent, and value to the network. Like all too many things these days, the intense heat of the culture wars may sever not one but two valuable relationships with sadly perhaps nothing truly learned and the all-too-familiar taste of bitterness all around.