ESPN says they’ve been working on their diversity record for decades

Tonya Cornelius, vice president of development, inclusion and wellness at ESPN, says there are multiple programs in place to address this very issue

ESPN has been making headlines for the last week or so after Rachel Nichols, a white host, made disparaging remarks directed at a fellow Black host, Maria Taylor.

“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,” said Nichols, who was on the phone with another coworker. She didn’t realize that she was being recorded at the time.

Although Nichols eventually apologized on-air, ESPN has not confirmed whether or not there was any disciplinary action taken against Nichols. The only person that faced repercussions was Kayla Johnson, a Black producer who sent the recording to Taylor. Johnson was suspended without pay before she eventually left the company, according to the New York Times.

ESPN’s Rachel Nichols (left) apologized to colleague Maria Taylor (right) on-air after assertions she made last year were made public in which she suggested Taylor was given a position commentating during the 2020 NBA Finals because she’s Black. (Photos by David Becker/Getty Images and Steve Jennings/Getty Images for ESPN)

Now, Taylor is reportedly looking at other opportunities while negotiating her contract with ESPN, which is set to expire this year. While the details of what went down inside the company recently have been minimal, many critics are calling on the company to take a hard look at its diversity record. 

Tanya Odom, an equity consultant and leadership coach, says that the most important thing that Nichols said was that ESPN has a “crappy” diversity record that employees have long been aware of that fact. 

“I think ESPN has so many layers of things to unpack — definitely some of the HR pieces — but just the culture in which Nichols is voicing what I’m sure others are, which is that it’s a zero sum game,” said Odom to theGrio. “If in fact, someone’s going to be rewarded, something’s going to be taken away from her.”

Odom acknowledged that while this competition between underrepresented groups may be the perception, the true focus should be on getting talented people the opportunities they deserve.

Tonya Cornileus, vice president of development, inclusion and wellness at ESPN, said that the company has been working on their diversity issues since the mid-90s when it launched its first executive diversity council and it has remained committed to diversity, equity, and inclusion.

“We want to hire, we want to grow, and we want to develop and retain the best people in the roles and really look to hire and give assignments by merit,” said Cornileus to theGrio. She rebuffed the notion of the “zero sum game” that Odom mentioned and said changing a 40-year-old company that has been set in its ways for decades will not always yield immediately visible results, but she maintained that the foundation for real and permanent change has been set.

According to the Hollywood Reporter, Jimmy Pitaro, ESPN’s chairman, wrote a memo confirming that Taylor was in fact chosen based on her merit and said that the company has doubled down on their diversity initiatives and is doing a “deep dive,” and examining data from exit interviews, etc, to determine if there are any more patterns that can be changed. 

Maria Taylor and James Pitaro look on prior to the College Football Playoff National Championship game between the Ohio State Buckeyes and the Alabama Crimson Tide at Hard Rock Stadium on January 11, 2021 in Miami Gardens, Florida. (Photo by Kevin C. Cox/Getty Images)

“I do want to be clear on one thing: Maria Taylor was selected as NBA Countdown host last year because she earned it,” said Pitaro. “Please know our commitment is that assignments and opportunities at ESPN are based on merit and any concerns, remarks, or inferences that suggest otherwise have been and will continue to be addressed.”

Odom also suggested that ESPN take a look at the current figures working their way around social media, which indicated that Black people do not want to return to work now that the effects of the pandemic are fading.

One viral tweet says that only 3% of Black people are comfortable heading into the office. Odom thinks that companies like ESPN should be using these metrics and addressing these issues internally through policy changes and really changing the root issues and not just changing the perception.

Cornelius says there are multiple programs in place to address this very issue like ESPN’s Rhoden Fellows Initiative Fund which gives money to HBCU students interested in sports journalism and a partnership with the Alliance for Women in Media. The programs provide support for the new generation and give them resources to make sure they feel at home within the company. ESPN also touts an entry-level production assistant program, NEXT, which this year has just hired a cohort that is made up of about 64% people of color. 

It is these pipeline programs that Cornelius says can help move ESPN in the right direction. According to her, the turnover rate at the company is not high when compared to other media companies and so change can seem slow-moving. But hiring is helping to speed this up.

“All open positions have diverse slates and when I say diverse slates, I mean there are at least two people of color, and at least two women. But not only are the slates diverse, the interviewing panels are diverse. And we are seeing tremendous progress from that,” she said. Of the 116 offers that the company has extended in the last year, 52% have been accepted by people of color and 42% have been accepted by women.

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