Rachel Nichols and ESPN’s Failed Diversity: “I Know Personally From the Female Side of It”

Updated Friday, July 23, at 7:30 a.m. PT.

Recent furor over unearthed comments by ESPN basketball analyst Rachel Nichols demonstrates how the inclusion of an elite few women will not dismantle ESPN’s or sports media’s patriarchal culture.

ESPN commentator Maria Taylor, whose colleague Rachel Nichols perpetuated racist sexism against in a statement, standing in front of a football field with microphone.
ESPN commentator Maria Taylor, ESPN commentator, at the 2020 College Football Playoff National Championship in New Orleans on January 13, 2020. ( Bobak Ha’Eri / Creative Commons)

Heh heh heh, man, I like her play but her looks, not so much.

Yeah, she’s not hot, I mean, speaking for me, she’s ripped not cute.

When the late radio jock Don Imus casually called the predominantly Black female Rutgers basketball team, “nappy headed hoes” back in 2007, I became fully aware of how sports media is like an exclusive guys club. Talking about women’s bodies and looks, whether they are professional athletes or their partners, is the norm. The stereotypes and condescending talk is simultaneously racialized and gendered.

Being a sports lover who regularly listens to sports radio and watches ESPN requires a duality. I spend as much time fuming over the unchecked sexist dribble of the male show hosts as disagreeing with their game or team predictions. I’ve come close to risking life and limb to pull over, call in and rip them. 

Women are just now becoming more visible playing notable roles on national sports platforms. But the recent furor over unearthed comments by ESPN basketball analyst Rachel Nichols demonstrates how the inclusion of an elite few women will not dismantle ESPN’s or sports media’s patriarchal culture. It’s easy to tag Nichols’s outed comments about Maria Taylor, her Black female colleague, as “racist” but they exemplify racist sexism.

In her statement, Nichols identifies herself as female versus her view of colleague Maria Taylor as Black, saying: “I know personally from the female side of it—like, go for it. Just find [diversity] somewhere else.”

It came as no surprise that just this week, Taylor announced she’s leaving ESPN.

Nichols’s lack of solidarity with Taylor as two women marginalized at male-centric ESPN and her dismissal of Taylor’s unique experiences as a Black woman suggest how timely that famous refrain attributed to Sojourner Truth remains: “Ain’t I a woman?”  

rachel-nichols-maria-taylor-espn-diversity-racism-sexism-white-women
Maria Taylor with two male colleagues. (Twitter)

As far back as abolitionist times, this convenient exclusivity reared its contradictory head. The erasure of “other” women (read: non-white) in the infrastructure of women’s or feminist organizations—and in representative language—hampered the fight for women’s rights collectively. Underlining that was a denial of gendered whiteness and the social empowerment therein. In other words, whiteness was not a visible racial construct while Blackness functioned as the synonym for racial visibility. 

In the fight over the 15th Amendment’s exclusion of race in denying Black male enfranchisement, pioneering women’s rights crusader Susan B. Anthony and like-minded white female peers fell back upon notions of gendered Black inferiority. They instead championed racial solidarity with white men to argue for their rights as white women over former ally Frederick Douglass’s support of citizenship rights for emancipated Black men subject to severe racial violence and disenfranchisement. 

Black women were not central focal points in either Black men’s claim to the privileges of citizenship, or white women’s right to the same. Harriet Tubman, Truth and other Black women begged to differ. They challenged the exclusion of Black women and highlighted interlocking gender and racial oppression, inserting themselves into the elite public conversation about freedom and personhood. 

Cancelling Rachel Nichols is the too easy reaction, fodder for symbolic “cancel culture,” and about as useless as her best “wishes” for Taylor. Nichols’s sports expertise or the sum of her career isn’t at issue. It’s about how she, like other white women jockeying against other women for a seat in the guys’ club, helps to maintain systemic sexist racism rather than transforming the culture for all.

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About

Professor Stephane Dunn, PhD, MA, MFA (University of Notre Dame) is the author of Baad Bitches & Sassy Supermamas: Black Power Action Films (2008), Chicago ’66 (2020 Finish Line/Tirota Social Impact Screenplay winner) & the forthcoming novel Snitchers (2022). She is a co-founder of the Cinema, Television & Emerging Media Studies (CTEMS) major at Morehouse College. Her writing has appeared in a number of edited books and other publications, including The Chronicle of Higher Education, CNN.com, The Atlantic, Vogue, TheRoot, Ebony, and Ms., among others.