Following a social media backlash over ESPN moving announcer Robert Lee off the University of Virginia’s home opener football game due to “the coincidence of his name,” the sports network’s president explained the decision.
“There was never any concern – by anyone, at any level — that Robert Lee’s name would offend anyone watching the Charlottesville game,” John Skipper, ESPN’s president, said in an internal memo obtained by CNN on Wednesday night. “Among our Charlotte production staff there was a question as to whether — in these divisive times — Robert’s assignment might create a distraction, or even worse, expose him to social hectoring and trolling.”
On Tuesday, ESPN switched Lee to the game in which Youngstown State University will face the University of Pittsburgh. The decision came following the violence that broke out earlier this month at a white nationalist rally in Charlottesville, Virginia, protesting plans to remove a statue of Confederate Gen. Robert E. Lee.
The website Outkick the Coverage broke the story using the headline, “MSESPN Pulls Asian Announcer Named Robert Lee Off UVa Game To Avoid Offending Idiots.” The title “MSESPN” derides the network as the sports equivalent of the liberal talk shows on MSNBC.
The story overloaded the site’s servers on Tuesday and caused backlash from many sides on social media.
Skipper added in the memo that “Robert was their primary concern” and that “they consulted with him directly” on the choice.
“He expressed some personal trepidation about the [Charlottesville] assignment and, when offered the chance to do the Youngstown State/Pitt game instead, opted for that game,” the memo read.
Skipper said that part of Lee’s decision was “because he lives in Albany and would be able to get home to his family on Saturday evening.”
Youngstown and Pitt are set to play at Pittsburgh-based Heinz Field.
“I’m disappointed that the good intentions of our Charlotte colleagues have been intentionally hijacked by someone with a personal agenda,” Skipper added.
He ended the memo by saying that he sincerely appreciated “Robert’s personal input and professionalism throughout this episode.”
Fox News’ Tucker Carlson spoke about the controversy and read the memo on his Wednesday night broadcast.
“I don’t think I’ve read anything quite that dishonest in a long time,” Carlson said. “But it reminds me of the central problem with the story, which is how mean is it to this guy, Robert Lee, in the end? They’re not protecting him. They exposed him to ridicule. They made him famous in the worst way, and they prevented him from calling a game because of his name. It’s cruel.”
On Twitter, Jim Miller, the co-author of “Those Guys Have All The Fun: Inside The World of ESPN,” tweeted “everyone is entitled to their own opinions but not their own facts.”
“Skipper lays down facts,” he added.