NBA player LeBron James and former California Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger in Los Angeles, California.
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The longtime white advisor to Black NBA superstar LeBron James was caught on tape telling a white ESPN reporter, “I’m exhausted. Between Me Too and Black Lives Matter, I got nothing left,” a report revealed Sunday.
The blunt comments by powerhouse communications maven Adam Mendelsohn — which referenced catchphrases used respectively for the movements seeking to reduce sexual violence against women, and police killings and brutality against Black people — came during a recorded phone call he had last summer with ESPN’s NBA reporter Rachel Nichols, The New York Times reported.
Mendelsohn apologized for those specific comments in an email to CNBC after being asked about them Sunday.
Nichols, who is white, had griped to Mendelsohn during that July 2020 call about a Black reporter, Maria Taylor, getting the hosting spot for NBA finals pre- and postgame shows from their sports cable TV network, a spot that Nichols had expected would be hers, The Times reported.
Nichols on that tape suggested Taylor was awarded that gig to Nichols’ disadvantage because Taylor is Black — and because ESPN was under pressure to have more racial diversity in its lineup of on-air talent.
In his first comments on the statements about Black Lives Matter and Me Too, Mendelsohn told CNBC, “I made a stupid, careless comment rooted in privilege and I am sincerely sorry.”
“I shouldn’t have said it or even thought it,” Mendelsohn said in an email.
“I work to support these movements and know that the people affected by these issues never get to be exhausted or have nothing left. I have to continue to check my privilege and work to be a better ally.”
Nichols apparently was unaware that the conversation was captured by a video camera that transmitted images and audio from her hotel room at a resort at Walt Disney World in Florida. Walt Disney Company is ESPN’s majority owner.
The video from the camera, which she had been using to appear on the network’s shows, fed into ESPN’s control room in Bristol, Connecticut. A tape of the call later circulated within ESPN and was leaked.
Mendelsohn has been an advisor to James for more than decade. Last year, he co-founded James’ Black voter promotion group More Than A Vote, and is senior advisor to the group.
More Than a Vote’s website notes that the group “launched amid the Black Lives Matter protests following the murders of George Floyd and Breonna Taylor. Our goal: Energizing, educating, and protecting Black voters.”
Taylor joined More Than a Vote last summer and as a member of the group recorded videos supporting the group’s efforts.
Mendelsohn is also a senior advisor to the private equity firm TPG, where he previously worked as managing director for global communications. He previously was deputy chief of staff to then-California Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger.
The Times reported that the video of the call lasts more than 20 minutes, with “continuous conversation.” The newspaper posted just two audio snippets online, lasting a combined 2 minutes and 47 seconds.
Anthony Davis #3 of the Los Angeles Lakers, LeBron James #23 of the Los Angeles Lakers and Quinn Cook #28 of the Los Angeles Lakers kneel during the National Anthem with VOTE shirts on prior to the start of the game against the Denver Nuggets in Game Three of the Western Conference Finals during the 2020 NBA Playoffs at AdventHealth Arena at the ESPN Wide World Of Sports Complex on September 22, 2020 in Lake Buena Vista, Florida.
Mike Ehrmann | Getty Images Sport | Getty Images
The Times article said that “many employees were outraged upon watching the video” because of their perception that Nichols was echoing “a common criticism used by white workers in many workplaces to disparage nonwhite colleagues — that Taylor was offered the hosting job only because of her race, not because she was the best person for the job.”
And The Times reported that ESPN workers had also said Nichols made Taylor’s job harder because Taylor needs to deal with Mendelsohn to get interviews with people in pro basketball.
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This past May, The Times reported, the stars of ESPN’s “NBA Countdown” discussed whether they would refuse to appear on it in protest over changes made to the production, which they believed were made to Nichols’ benefit.
Those changes included making Nichols the lead game sideline reporter, which in turn led to three sideline reporters of color getting lesser assignments.
The bombshell report comes weeks before Taylor’s contract with ESPN is due to expire.
The New York Post last week reported that Taylor last year turned down a contract proposal that would have increased her current $1 million annual salary eventually to nearly $5 million annually. Taylor reportedly was holding out for significantly more money.
The Post also reported that ESPN’s current offer to Taylor is believed to be in the range of $2 million to $3 million annually. The lower amount reflects a move by the network to reduce salaries across the board, according to The Post.
Nichols had the July 13, 2020 call to Mendelsohn to ask for an interview with James and another Lakers player, Anthony Davis, who is another client of James’ agent, Rich Paul. Mendelsohn also is an advisor to Paul, who is black.
Nichols also took the time in the same call to ask Mendelsohn for advice about how to handle the situation at ESPN, and her being denied the assignment that went to Taylor.
“I wish Maria Taylor all the success in the world — she covers football, she covers basketball,” Nichols said during the call with Mendelsohn, audio portions of which were posted online by The Times.
“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.”
She also noted that the assignment to host NBA finals coverage “is in my contract in writing,” the newspaper reported.
After Nichols said she planned to await ESPN’s next move, Mendelsohn paused, and then said, “I don’t know. I’m exhausted. Between Me Too and Black Lives Matter, I got nothing left.”
Nichols then laughed in response, the tape reveals.
Mendelsohn then suggested Nichols “frame” the situation as ESPN having pitted two women, Nichols and Taylor, against each other.
“About how it’s just so very white male for them to turn two women on each other to compete over the one spot that they’re dangling over them,” Mendelsohn said.
“A broader conversation about all the spots that should be under consideration.”
Nichols then said on the tape: “There isn’t just one seat at the table for a minority of whichever version this week we’re trying to please.”
Mendelsohn said in response: “If you think about it, this is precisely the problem we’ve been talking about for a long time, which is white men — it is an example of the one Black person in the boardroom … You don’t get to have a Black woman in a prominent spot and feel like, OK, the whole work is done.”
“And you certainly don’t get to say, ‘OK, we have a white woman, we have a woman in a critical seat, and now that we’re going to put a Black woman in that same seat,” he said.
“The question is, what are the other seats that white males are in.”
The Times reported that he told the newspaper for its article, “I will share what I believed then and still believe to be true. Maria [Taylor] deserved and earned the position, and Rachel [Nichols] must respect it.”
“Maria deserved it because of her work, and ESPN recognized that like many people and companies in America, they must intentionally change,” Mendelsohn said.
“Just because Maria got the job does not mean Rachel shouldn’t get paid what she deserves. Rachel and Maria should not be forced into a zero-sum game by ESPN, and Rachel needed to call them out.”
The Times reported that Mendelsohn did not answer follow-up questions about the recorded call.
In his statement to CNBC, Mendelsohn said: “I will reiterate what I believe, counseled Rachel in the call, and told the Times. Maria deserved and earned the position and Rachel needed to respect it. If Rachel wanted to challenge ESPN, she needed to focus on their overall culture.”
ESPN has declined to say if any employee was disciplined in connection with the case.
The Times reported that the only person known to be punished was a Black digital video producer who was suspended for two weeks without pay after telling ESPN’s human resources division that she sent the video to Taylor.
Josh Krulewitz, ESPN’s spokesman, declined to comment to CNBC, but referred to statements he gave to The Times for its article.
“A diverse group of executives thoroughly and fairly considered all the facts related to the incident and then addressed the situation appropriately,” Krulewitz said.
“We’re proud of the coverage we continue to produce, and our focus will remain on Maria, Rachel and the rest of the talented team collectively serving N.B.A. fans.”
Krulewitz also told the newspaper that ESPN emphasizes diversity, inclusion and equity, and that the company “arguably has the most diverse array of talented professionals in the sports media business, including those behind the scenes.”