More than a dozen current and ex-employees characterized the Dallas Mavericks hostile work environment—ranging from sexual harassment to domestic violence—as an “open secret” in a special investigation published by Sports Illustrated earlier this week. One of the forceful NBA voices to offer commentary following the allegations by SI was ESPN’s Rachel Nichols, who hosts “The Jump,” which will be expand to an hour every weekday, from 3-4 pm ET, beginning Mar. 12. SI caught up with Nichols about her response to the investigation and the importance of this story.
Richard Deitsch: Your commentary on the hostile working environment in Dallas has been viewed at this point in the millions between YouTube, ESPN's digital offerings, and linear television. Why do you think what you said struck a nerve?
Nichols: Oh, I think what’s struck a nerve are the stories these women told, through extremely nuanced, comprehensive reporting by Jon Wertheim and Jessica Luther. That’s what people are reacting to. I just wanted to do justice to all of that, and for me that’s always about using as blunt and specific language as possible, to put the viewer into the moment. And I understand why there are times we all need to use terms like “domestic violence” or “sexual harassment.” But personally, I try to stay away from them as much as possible, because I think they’ve become a bit numbing and disconnected from how awful the actual experience is. In this case, you had one man who beat his girlfriend, broke her wrist, left her body bruised…so say that. Another man who was grabbing at women’s thighs in meetings, cornering them in elevators, messaging to the whole rest of the office that the women who worked there were available as prey. So say that. And then some of it too is just bringing my own context, my own experience, my own opinions into it. I love the NBA. I really do. I have seen this league not just thrill on the court but create genuine change off it. That makes it even more crushing to hear what went on in Dallas, and makes it feel even more urgent things get fixed.
RD: What were your pre-show meetings like that day regarding how you and your producers would approach this topic?
Nichols: Steve Martinez was the producer in charge of Wednesday’s show. On Tuesday night, I was still in the middle of reading the SI story when I got an email from him—we had planned to lead the next day’s show with a Kyrie Irving interview I had done, but we both knew immediately this was going to supplant it. I’ll be honest, what surprised me was over the next twelve hours, how there were shows on both our network and other sports networks that didn’t even mention the story. I mean, at all. And a number of those that did, but had it buried after off-season NFL speculation, with just a quick 30-second reader and then cut to commercial. To me it felt like the biggest thing in the sports world that day, but I guess that wasn’t the case for a lot of other people. And that’s okay. It just speaks to why diversity of thought is important, why it’s important to have all kinds of people involved in determining what’s "news.” On other shows, other stories got attention. On our show, this one did.
RD: We don’t often see commentary at the length of yours on sports television. We have seen it with political commentators. Why do you think this is and are viewers being disserved by not going this in-depth?
Nichols: Most days, I open the show with a monologue that’s around three minutes. And I think having that consistent slot is important, because again—diversity of thought. My voice and perspective are frankly just different from 90% of what’s available on sports TV, so protecting that space matters. But one of the best things about The Jump is that we’re also flexible. During All-Star last week, when our talent producer Gina Paradiso stacked the show with all these amazing guests dropping by, it was much more of a hang-out vibe and we skipped the monologue all together. With this Mavericks story on Wednesday’s show, the monologue was six minutes. I feel really lucky to work with producers all the way up and down our group who trust my instincts on when I need to go longer, to get a point across, to tell a story the way it needs to be told.
RD: How have you viewed Mark Cuban’s response to this?
Nichols: Look, I’ve covered stories like this where the men in charge refuse to acknowledge anything was done wrong, or refuse to give value to the experiences of anyone but themselves. So it matters to me that Mark has been so quick to recognize how serious this all is, and to accept blame. But I also don’t think you get a parade for saying you’re sorry only after you’ve been called out and embarrassed.
RD: What, in your opinion, does the league owe its consumers here regarding any findings?
Nichols: I think Mavericks fans, season–ticket holders, and most importantly the people who work for the team deserve to get a full accounting of what is going on there. Mark Cuban has hired an outside investigative law firm for that purpose, and it says something that he picked one with serious ethical chops. Personally, I would have liked to have seen the NBA hire the firm, instead of the team, even if just for the optics that this is not the Mavericks self-policing here. Frankly, I think they’ve forfeited the right to self-police on this one. I would also prefer to see the investigation’s findings released publicly first, before the team or the league has a chance to manage and frame those findings, just because I believe the unvarnished truth is what would be the most useful in actually fixing things going forward. But I’m interested to see how this goes, and I do believe there is a genuine intent within the league office to address this, as opposed to bury it. Again, I wouldn’t say that’s always the case.
RD: What will The Jump do on this story heading forward?
Nichols: Well, we’re not an investigative unit. Our show staff is actually on the smaller side for ESPN; our resources get maxed out every day just putting The Jump on the air. So you won’t see us blowing open some big exposé with some other team. But I think what we can do, as we did here, is just help direct attention in some places it might otherwise not go. Keep asking questions. Anyone who watches us regularly knows that even with much more frivolous topics, like, say, televising the All-Star draft, I’m not one to just let something sit too often.
RD: Feel free to add anything else you wish?
Nichols: One of the most frustrating things about situations like the ones the women in Dallas faced is that it can feel like you just have no recourse. Almost by definition, if you work in a place where degrading/gross behavior is allowed to flourish, you work in a place where they’ve already shown you that they’re not going to care enough to take you seriously. Or worse, that they’re going to punish you for speaking up. In this case—working for an NBA team—that is often someone’s dream job. And yet a number of women who worked for the Mavericks felt their only choice if they didn’t want to be abused was to just give up and leave. That's rotten. So I was happy to see one the changes the NBA announced it's going to make will be setting up a confidential hotline for team employees. It would be naïve to think that there aren’t incidents like this happening within any of the other 29 teams in the league. No workplace is perfect. At least now there is going to be an alternative, outside avenue to address these situations, and I think that’s going to matter.