In Critique of Maria Taylor, Jason Whitlock Misses the Forest for the Trees

Beauty comes with a lot of benefits. It can open doors into industries that value attractiveness over almost everything else, such as modeling and acting. In politics, it can give you a sizable boost at the ballot box, especially here in the United States. It can even reduce the amount of time you spend in prison.

In television, attractive people dominate. The old saying about having a “face made for radio” didn’t come out of nowhere. Anyone with an ounce of common sense knows that if you’re pursuing work in broadcast media, a pretty face can mean the difference between a career spent behind a radio microphone and a career spent in front of a television camera.

Attractiveness alone, however, rarely serves as a golden ticket to stardom. In broadcast media specifically, there are myriad talents you need to possess to have any hope of achieving the level of fame that sports personalities like Maria Taylor and Katie Nolan have managed to achieve.

That’s one of many reasons why I disagree rather strongly with the premise of Jason Whitlock’s most recent take on the drama surrounding the aforementioned Taylor and her hard-to-excuse mistake of leaving Anthony Davis off of her all-NBA ballot. I’m also a bit baffled by the out-of-left-field jab he threw at Katie Nolan in a piece that really didn’t have much to do with her. 

In the piece, Whitlock acknowledges that Taylor is exceptionally talented, referring to her as a “unicorn” and “on-air natural” with a broad range of skills. But then he tries to undermine her credibility by attributing a disproportionate amount of her success to her physical appearance. 

“As it relates to NBA voting privileges, Taylor hasn’t worked hard for that,” he argues. “The super-woke NBA gifted Taylor the privilege because ESPN fast-tracked Taylor into the job of NBA Countdown host. The NBA would rather hand a high-profile female journalist an opportunity rather than have her earn it with several years of credible work.”

“It’s a combination of female privilege and beauty privilege in the age of the matriarchy,” he concludes. 

There’s no denying that Taylor is a conventionally attractive woman who has cultivated an equally attractive on-air persona. Whitlock isn’t wrong about that. He’s also (probably) not wrong that her attractiveness is one of the variables that helped her climb high up the corporate ladder in a relatively short period of time. 

That being said, the implication that Taylor hasn’t earned the honor of serving as the host of NBA Countdown comes off as exceedingly cynical.

The sports media industry has for years been handing out cushy gigs to legacy hires and former professional athletes who had much less experience in broadcasting than Taylor did when she took over Countdown. Take sportscaster Joe Buck, who was recently inducted into the Pro Football Hall of Fame. Does anyone really believe that he would have become the youngest announcer in history to call a full slate of NFL games on network television—he was just 25 years old at the time—if he hadn’t been the son of broadcasting legend Jack Buck? 

That’s not to say that Joe shouldn’t have the job he’s got or the privileges that come along with it, nor does it mean that he isn’t deserving of his newfound place in the HOF. On the contrary, I have no beef at all with Joe Buck. I’m happy he’s been as successful as he has, and I think he’s a better sportscaster than the naysayers are willing to admit. From what I can tell, he’s also a very humble guy who doesn’t take his good fortune for granted, which is an admirable quality in a business chock full of narcissistic personalities. 

But let’s be honest here; there are a lot of people working in sports media like Joe Buck who are where they are in part because of the unearned advantages life handed to them. Maria Taylor is one of those people, too, but why single her out when there are so many more egregious examples to choose from?

Furthermore, the degree to which Taylor’s beauty has helped shape her career is irrelevant to the question of whether she deserves the privilege of voting for all-NBA teams. If Whitlock believes she isn’t qualified for that particular privilege, that’s fine, but he owes it to the reader—and especially to Taylor—to dig into the reasons why he feels that way. 

He briefly does this when he claims that “she hasn’t covered the league long enough to be an expert.” Okay, fair enough. A lack of experience is a perfectly valid basis for his position. So why the inordinate focus on her appearance? Taylor’s attractiveness has no bearing on whether she is sufficiently knowledgeable about the game to warrant a seat at the same table as more seasoned NBA voters like Ric Bucher, Doris Burke, and Keith Pompey. If Whitlock aims to convince his audience that she doesn’t deserve that seat, he should focus his attention on her résumé rather than her looks.

It might have also helped if he had established what he thinks the minimum criteria for NBA voter eligibility ought to be, and then explain how Taylor falls short of that criteria. But he doesn’t do that, either.

As far as Katie Nolan is concerned, it’s true that her path to success was unique—but so what? We’re living in an era that spurns professional traditions. It’s no longer necessary to follow the conventional route to media stardom. Nolan smartly figured that out at a young age, built an online brand for herself, and leveraged that brand into a seven-figure job at the most recognizable sports network in America. And she most certainly didn’t pull it off just by being pretty. Good for her, I say. 

Had Whitlock brought up Taylor’s attractiveness in the context of a broader critique of his industry’s hiring practices, it might have sparked a useful and overdue discussion about the superficial standards unfairly imposed on women—and also men, albeit to a far lesser degree—who aspire to be the next Maria Taylor or Katie Nolan. There’s a strong argument to be made that sports media outlets have for too long relied on inequitable recruiting processes that unjustly favor looks, luck, and name recognition over talent, experience, and a healthy work ethic. Instead, Whitlock used an innocent, isolated mistake to try and make an example out of Taylor. She didn’t deserve that, and she knows it, which is why she had every right to clap back at her critics as hard as she did.

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