Switching Robert Lee from Virginia game creates its own controversy for ESPN


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SportsPulse: Trysta Krick says Twitter users can tease ESPN all they want; in light of the recent violence in Charlottesville, it made the right decision to move announcer Robert Lee from calling the Virginia Cavaliers football game.
USA TODAY Sports

ESPN executives were leery of the public reaction if play-by-play announcer Robert Lee called the Sept. 2 game between Virginia and William & Mary. The game takes place in Charlottesville, Va., site of protests two weekends ago that included debate about the potential removal of a statue of Confederate Gen. Robert E. Lee. 

But switching Lee to another game created its own controversy for ESPN. 

“As a boss, you need to consider all angles when making decisions,” former Fox Sports executive Rick Jaffe told USA TODAY Sports. “There are so many things nowadays that offend people, and social media has made it easy for people to go on the attack. That said, I really don’t understand this decision.

“If ESPN never brings this up, in my opinion, absolutely nothing would have happened if Robert Lee had called the UVA-William & Mary game. It would have been a non-issue.”

Instead, ESPN was left to explain the reasoning behind its decision to give Lee — who has announced Siena men’s basketball games since 2000 and enters his second season as an ESPN broadcaster — the choice to switch to another game next weekend. Lee opted out of the Virginia-William & Mary game and will call Youngstown State vs. the University of Pittsburgh.

“Sometimes, every boss or decision-maker overthinks things, and I think that’s totally the case on this one,” said Jaffe, the executive producer of the upstart Vegas Stats & Information Network (VSiN).

Lee did not respond to messages left by USA TODAY Sports on Wednesday.

Former longtime network public relations executive Richard Licata said the switch initiated by ESPN is part of the “political climate that has left everyone oversensitized.”

“Anytime you’re dealing with public perception, there’s an inherent sense of a potential fumble,” said Licata, the founder Licata & Co. who held top positions at NBC, HBO and other networks. “How is the public going to respond to this strategy? I think we are all walking on eggshells.”

Licata, however, said that ESPN created a bigger PR mess than if Lee had been left in his original spot.

“I’m not sure the viewer would have put the two together,” Licata said of the coincidence that the broadcaster had the same name as the Confederate general.

Broadcast agent Dana Adams, however, said Lee could come out ahead in all of this.

“From an agent’s perspective, I think it’s fair to say more people know Robert Lee works at ESPN today than they did yesterday,” said Adams, who does not represent Lee. “You know what they say, ‘Any publicity is good publicity. Just spell my name right.’ The fact everyone knows his name now isn’t a bad thing.”

 



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