The president of ESPN said Wednesday that the much-ridiculed decision to pull broadcaster Robert Lee from calling a University of Virginia football game in Charlottesville arose from “good intentions” that were “hijacked,” according to news reports. The move, first reported Tuesday, has provoked outrage at what some critics have called misguided political correctness following clashes this month between white nationalists and counterprotesters amid plans to remove a statue of Confederate general Robert E. Lee in the Virginia city.
In an internal note, ESPN chief John Skipper wrote that he wanted to make sure employees “have the facts,” according to news reports.
“There was never any concern — by anyone, at any level — that Robert Lee’s name would offend anyone watching the Charlottesville game,” Skipper said.
Lee had been scheduled as a play-by-play announcer for Virginia’s home opener against William and Mary on Sept. 2
ESPN production staff spoke with Lee about their concerns that he would be exposed to “social hectoring and trolling,” among other potential fallout from participating in the game, according to the note. Lee “expressed some personal trepidation about the assignment” and then accepted the opportunity to work another game.
An ESPN spokesman said Lee will instead cover Youngstown State at Pittsburgh on Sept. 2 on the ACC Network Extra channel.
Skipper concluded by saying he was “disappointed that the good intentions of our Charlotte colleagues have been intentionally hijacked by someone with a personal agenda.”
New: internal memo from ESPN prez John Skipper about the Robert Lee decision pic.twitter.com/3yFk4hbDRb
— Brian Stelter (@brianstelter) August 24, 2017
Skipper’s note provides more details than the statement the company issued Tuesday, which said that the decision to reassign Lee was made “collectively” and “simply because of the coincidence of his name.”
An Aug. 12 rally in Charlottesville turned violent as white nationalists, neo-Nazis and Ku Klux Klan members fought with counterprotesters during demonstrations against the planned removal of a Robert E. Lee statue. A counterprotester, Heather Heyer, was killed and 19 others were injured when a man allegedly linked to neo-Nazi beliefs drove his car into a crowd, according to the authorities.
The initial reports Tuesday that Lee would no longer call the game in Charlottesville elicited jokes and criticism.
“What on earth was ESPN thinking?” wrote The Washington Post’s Cindy Boren.
That was the collective reaction when the network made what seemed like an extremely silly programming decision to replace the play-by-play announcer on its coverage of the University of Virginia’s home opener on Sept. 2, simply because his name is Robert Lee, a rather common name made famous, of course, by the general of the Confederacy.
Sports Illustrated’s Richard Deitsch wrote that, “Even if you believe ESPN on face here about protecting a broadcaster, it’s still a self-inflicted wound and a decision made out of fear of negative press.
“The company would have been far better served with Lee doing the game and dealing with the one-day fallout (if you can call it that) of jokes and snickers. This is obviously easy for me to say in hindsight, given I’m not the one dealing with it.”
In an email to The Post on Wednesday, the Asian American Journalists Association said “it is unfortunate that someone’s name, particularly a last name that is common among Asian Americans, can be a potential liability.”
“We do not, however, believe this decision was motivated by race,” the organization added.
Conservative media pounced on ESPN for what it perceived as a company bending over backward in an act of political correctness.
Former ESPN reporter turned conservative pundit Britt McHenry decried the decision during an appearance on “Tucker Carlson Tonight” on Fox News.
“It’s a reflection of society right now about how left-wing and PC it’s gotten, even your name, given at birth, or the possibility of a meme on the Internet, is a reason to make a personal change,” she said.
“If that’s what we’re doing here, Tucker, everyone might be out of a job, especially in this industry.”
— Fox News (@FoxNews) August 24, 2017
Lee, who did not respond to requests for comment, had told Upstate Sports Edge last year that his name came from an actor.
“My mom actually had no idea who Robert E. Lee was when she immigrated to the United States; I’m actually named after Robert Redford,” Lee said.