ESPN President John Skipper Comments on the Robert Lee Saga

By A.J. Katz 

ESPN president John Skipper claimed he had no idea the move to pull ESPN college football play-by-play man Robert Lee from the ESPN3 broadcast of William & Mary/UVA in Charlottesville, and have him call Youngstown State/Pitt in Pittsburgh would cause such a media firestorm. But apparently it did.

For those not familiar with the story at this point, the network announced on Tuesday evening that the sportscaster who happens to share a name with the Confederate general made him a poor choice for calling a University of Virginia football game in Charlottesville, where the neo-Nazi/White nationalist protest over the removal of a statue of Robert E. Lee left a woman dead and many injured nearly two weeks ago.

Here’s the internal memo Skipper sent to staff yesterday evening, where he provides his own thoughts and why the network made this decision:

Given the amount of media attention being generated by one of the countless, routine decisions our local production teams make every day, I wanted to make sure you have the facts. There was never any concern – by anyone, at any level — that Robert Lee’s name would offend anyone watching the Charlottesville game.

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. Since Robert was their primary concern, they consulted with him directly. He expressed some personal trepidation about the assignment and, when offered the chance to do the Youngstown State/Pitt game instead, opted for that game — in part because he lives in Albany and would be able to get home to his family on Saturday evening.

I’m disappointed that the good intentions of our Charlotte colleagues have been intentionally hijacked by someone with a personal agenda, and sincerely appreciate Robert’s personal input and professionalism throughout this episode.

The news that Lee was being taken off the broadcast in Charlottesville was first reported Tuesday by Clay Travis, a Fox Sports Radio contributor, editor of the website Outkick the Coverage, and someone who has a history of criticizing ESPN for what he perceives as “liberal bias” at the network.

Numerous outlets, particularly ones that skew conservative, have covered the Lee story extensively. Travis even appeared on Tucker Carlson Tonight on Tuesday.

“I think it’s a sign of how ridiculous and absurd society has become that they made the decision that it was the right move to do this, as opposed to just allowing people out there to think: ‘You know what? This guy is probably not a Robert E. Lee ancestor, given the fact that he is an Asian guy and also it’s been, you know, 150 some odd years since Robert E. Lee died,'” proclaimed Travis. “I think it’s probably time we can get over it for a football game.”

Even the Asian American Journalists Association (Lee is Asian-American) commented on the matter, saying in a statement that “it is unfortunate that someone’s name, particularly a last name that is common among Asian-Americans, can be a potential liability.”

Lee is a veteran sports broadcaster who has primarily called college basketball (not football) games over his career. He has done play-by-play for Siena University men’s basketball games for 17 years, currently doing so for Spectrum Sports, and hosts a weekly radio program with the team’s coaches. The Albany, New York-based Lee has also called ACC, A-10, Big South, MAAC and Ohio Valley college basketball games on ESPNU and ESPN3.