ESPN’s Robert Lee Decision Was Made Out of Fear of Negative Press

As the Robert Lee story was gaining Concorde-level speed last night on social media, a prominent ESPN on-air talent sent me a direct message on Twitter:

“If they don’t switch the guy, we get mocked for having a guy named Robert Lee on a Virginia game,” said the ESPNer. “Can’t win.”

There’s some truth there.

The sports announcer Robert Lee, best known prior to Tuesday night as the radio and television play by play voice of the Siena College (Loudonville, N.Y.) men’s basketball program, has found himself at the center of a major sports controversy on perceived political correctness run amok. In what ESPN says was a joint decision between the broadcaster and the company, Lee was removed from broadcasting Virginia’s season-opening football game on Sept. 2 against William Mary because of the similarity of his name to the Confederate general Robert E. Lee. He was re-assigned to call Youngstown State at Pittsburgh on ESPN3 on the same day.

ESPN senior director of communications Keri Potts told late Tuesday night that the company did not mandate Lee switch games and that the announcer was more comfortable not doing the assignment because of the potential mockery that could come from doing the game.

“We collectively made the decision with Robert to switch games as the tragic events in Charlottesville were unfolding, simply because of the coincidence of his name,” the company said in a statement. “In that moment it felt right to all parties. It’s a shame that this is even a topic of conversation and we regret that who calls play-by-play for a football game has become an issue.”

The switch on the assignment change was first reported by Clay Travis, the founder of the Outkick the Coverage site and a host on Fox Sports Radio. The story picked up a lot of steam immediately on conservative outlets and with conservative commentators. It has since by picked up by everyone short of The Onion.

ESPN later issued additional comments, first to Yashar Ali of New York Magazine and then to other outlets: “No biggie until someone leaked it to embarrass us,” said an ESPN PR spokesperson. “They got their way. That’s what happened. No politically correct efforts. No race issues. Just trying to be supportive of a young guy who felt it best to avoid the potential zoo.”

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.

Lee has not responded to an interview request from Sports Illustrated and until he speaks, we can’t get any kind of clarity on how much he initiated this versus ESPN. Given Lee’s profile, it seems more than plausible that he didn’t want to deal with any fallout. He is unknown to 99.9% of the sports viewing public. Some background on him:

• He has called Siena men’s basketball on radio and television for the past 17 years. He currently calls select Siena home games for Spectrum Sports, the former Time Warner Cable network. He also hosts a weekly radio show with Siena basketball coaches.

• The Virginia game as well as the Youngstown State–Pitt game is part of the ACC Network Extra package, whose games are shown on ESPN3.

• During his career Lee has called ACC, A-10, Big South, MAAC and Ohio Valley college basketball games on ESPNU and ESPN3.

• Lee has called men’s soccer and baseball for the Big East Digital network.

• He previously hosted daily television show for Capital OTB that focused on horse racing through interviews with trainers, jockeys and racing personnel.

• Lee has called minor league baseball in the Northern League and Frontier League.

• His previous broadcast work also includes calling Siena women’s basketball, the Albany Attack indoor lacrosse team; Albany-based high school football, basketball, baseball and lacrosse, as well as college lacrosse and volleyball, professional tennis.

• He is a blogger for the Albany Times Union, where he doles out horse racing tips.

• Lee is a 1999 graduate of Syracuse University, where he called basketball, football and lacrosse for WAER Radio. Immediately after graduating from Syracuse, he worked as an assistant sports information director for Siena.

In short, this is not a big-time sports announcer. But in the Siena area, he is a respected one.

“He’s a great guy, a true professional and we value his skills,” Siena assistant athletic director for communications Mike Demos told on Wednesday morning. “Everything we have done with him, he’s been professional. He’s been a part of the Siena family for almost two decades and done nothing to make us think otherwise. Our fan base, in my opinion, has a great affinity for him.”

If there is some humor to be derived from this now-circus, it came from Bob Ley, the longtime ESPNer who also shares a similar-sounding name with the Confederate general, and is nicknamed in-house at ESPN as “The General.”

“Rather worried my employee ID/pass may not admit me in the AM,” Ley tweeted. “Life, as scripted by @OnionSports.”