ESPN President John Skipper has blamed "someone with a personal agenda" for the national hoopla surrounding the network's decision to pull a broadcaster named Robert Lee from calling a football game at the University of Virginia in Charlottesville, due to recent protests over the removal of a statue of Robert E. Lee which left one woman dead and 19 others injured.
"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," Skipper said in a memo to staff Wednesday cited by the Alt Standard.
The decision to remove the broadcaster from the assignment was first reported on Tuesday by Clay Travis, editor of the website Outkick the Coverage, who according to The New York Times, has been critical of ESPN's perceived liberal bias.
"MSESPN Pulls Asian Announcer Named Robert Lee Off UVa Game To Avoid Offending Idiots," read the headline to Travis' report.
"To avoid offending left wing idiots Robert Lee, the Asian college football announcer, not the Confederate General who died in 1870 and shares a name with him, was switched to the Youngstown State at Pittsburgh game and Dave Weekley will now call the William and Mary at University of Virginia game," Travis wrote.
"Is there anything more pathetic than ESPN believing people would be offended by an Asian guy named Robert Lee sharing a name with Robert E. Lee and calling a football game? Aside from some hysterical photoshops and internet memes which would make everyone with a functional brain laugh — Robert E. Lee pulling out all the stops to stay in Charlottesville now! — what was the big fear here? Does ESPN really believe people are this dumb or that having an Asian announcer named Robert Lee is too offensive for the average TV viewer to handle?" he asked.
Skipper denied that ESPN was attempting to avoid offending anyone by pulling Lee and noted that it was Lee himself who suggested switching assignments.
"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," Skipper told staff in the memo.
"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," Skipper continued. "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."
Fox News' Senior Political Analyst Brit Hume noted on Twitter Wednesday that the statement's message is inconsistent, saying, "I wonder if anyone noticed how totally the second paragraph contradicts the first."
"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," he said.
Deitsch also said it is also plausible that Lee played a role in the decision.
"Given Lee's (social media) profile, it seems more than plausible that he didn't want to deal with any fallout. He is unknown to 99.9 percent of the sports viewing public," he wrote.