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ESPN's Maria Taylor Is Leaving The Network After A Colleague's Remarks About Race

A MARTINEZ, HOST:

A rising star at ESPN, Maria Taylor, has walked away from the network. Her last assignment on ESPN was Tuesday's NBA finals, when the Milwaukee Bucks won the championship.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

MARIA TAYLOR: History in the making. History has been made.

MARTINEZ: Taylor's departure comes weeks after The New York Times reported on tensions within the network over a white colleague's recorded comments that suggested Taylor may have gotten a more prominent role because she's Black. Contract talks between Taylor and ESPN had also broken down more than once. NPR's media correspondent David Folkenflik joins us to talk more about this. David, so why is Maria Taylor leaving ESPN?

DAVID FOLKENFLIK, BYLINE: Well, you certainly got to say it's because of the money. They were millions of dollars apart. She had wanted something like 8 million last year, which is in line with some of their highest-paid figures. Last year, they offered 5 million. And after the pandemic hit, they really were wiped out for the year, asking for major hosts to give money back to the network. This year, they're offering about 3 million, still about tripling of her salary, but not what she wanted.

There's important background, though. Rachel Nichols is a notable reporter and host at the network, herself white, was caught on the - effectively a hot mic a year ago saying that while she wanted diversity at ESPN, she sure didn't want those gains to come at her expense and suggested that Taylor was promoted to be an "NBA Countdown" host over Nichols because of race. Here's a clip of what she said that was posted by The New York Times.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

RACHEL NICHOLS: If you need to give her more things to do because you're feeling pressure about your really crappy long-time record on diversity - which, by the way, I, myself, like, know personally from the female side of it - like, go for it. Just, you know, find it somewhere else. Like, you're not going to find it with me and taking my thing away.

FOLKENFLIK: Nichols there referring to it as her thing, as though somehow Taylor wasn't deserving. A lot of folks at the network think Taylor is tremendous talent. That was circulated within ESPN last year and caused a real ruckus, particularly among African American colleagues, and then once more rupture when it was reported earlier this summer by The New York Times.

MARTINEZ: How did ESPN handle the fallout of Rachel Nichols' remarks?

FOLKENFLIK: Well, they essentially found that Taylor was unwilling to have Nichols appear on the "NBA Countdown" show and, after some back-and-forth, suggesting maybe they would tape Nichols' appearances, said that Nichols would not appear as a sideline reporter during the NBA playoffs finals at all. But, you know, it was interesting to notice a lot of hustle to handle it after it was public and perhaps not so delicately handled in the year in between.

MARTINEZ: Yeah. It's been a whole awkward situation there. Now, you suggested this was largely about money, and there are reports that Taylor might end up at NBC and could even be at the Olympics. But, David, what does this tell us about ESPN, who, despite all this, is still really considered the leader in sports networks?

FOLKENFLIK: Yeah. Well, you know, ESPN called - sometimes seriously, sometimes self-mockingly - the worldwide leader in sports. And it still is a dominant figure there. At NBC, you could argue Taylor might be able to do the Olympics, when they get the Super Bowl, do that and, you know, perhaps be able to springboard into other roles in sports but also beyond sports at a network like that.

But I think there are two things here, one of which is you have the question of ESPN and its finances. The fact that it couldn't meet a rising star's money desires, you know, is reflective in part that money is no longer simply being printed at ESPN, that streaming wars and the decline of cable is hitting it hard. And also the question - the legacy of race. You had Jemele Hill and other African American lead figures and hosts who have - some of whom have left the network over concerns that it doesn't quite know how to affirm, develop, promote its talent who's African American in the same way that it's done for so many decades for those who are white.

MARTINEZ: That's NPR's media correspondent David Folkenflik. David, thanks a lot.

FOLKENFLIK: You bet. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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