ESPN plans to drill deeper into issues of diversity and inclusion, going as far as to examine the exit interviews of recently departed employees, in the wake of a dispute that has engulfed two of the network’s basketball reporters, the chairman of the Disney-backed outlet told staffers in a memo.
“Change takes time, and I ask for your partnership on this journey,” ESPN Chairman Jimmy Pitaro said to employees in the memo, which was circulated last week. “Know that our leadership is committed to accelerating our efforts and working toward a collective goal — an ESPN where everyone feels they belong.”
Variety reports the note surfaced just days after ESPN tried to put out an inflammatory situation that has been heating up for months. In July of last year, basketball reporter Rachel Nichols was caught on video speaking to representatives of LeBron James about ESPN’s decision to have Maria Taylor host “NBA Countdown” during 2020’s NBA Finals. Her comments were recorded by a video camera she had left on and subsequently uploaded into ESPN’s system, where the footage was discovered and distributed by an employee. Nichols was frustrated that she hadn’t gotten the role, and suggested that ESPN’s interest in paying more attention to diversity was a factor in the decision. The matter boiled over after the New York Times reported that some employees who helped produce ESPN’s basketball coverage may have been choosing sides, and has drawn comments from Adam Silver, the NBA Commissioner.
In a blunt statement, Pitaro tried to put that matter to rest. “I do want to be clear on one thing: Maria Taylor was selected as ‘NBA Countdown’ host last year because she earned it,” he said. “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.”
Pitaro said executives at the sports-media outlet planned to focus on issues around diversity and inclusion at an employee town hall later In July, “and we will continue to have focused conversations with the Black and African American community at ESPN in the coming weeks,” he said. “As always, we value an open and honest dialogue.”
The executive told staffers ESPN had started new programs aimed at addressing issues of inclusion at the company, calling on employees to join groups devoted to diversity and mentoring. He said the company was “seeing progress” in terms of hiring employees from a greater range of backgrounds, noting that out of 116 staffers hired in 2021, 52% were people of color and 42% were female. Pitaro also noted that 63% of ESPN’s executive team was female and/or a person of color.