TV & radio

SPORTS MEDIA | CHAD FINN

In an effort to avoid controversy, ESPN created it

FILE - In this Oct. 29, 2016, file photo, Louisville lines up for a play against Virginia during an NCAA college football game in Charlottesville, Va. ESPN broadcaster Robert Lee will not work Virginia’s season opener because of recent violence in Charlottesville sparked by the decision to remove a statue of Confederate Gen. Robert E. Lee. A spokeswoman for ESPN says Lee has been moved to Youngstown State’s game at Pittsburgh on the ACC Network on Sept. 2. The network says the decision was made “as the tragic events in Charlottesville were unfolding, simply because of the coincidence of his name.” (AP Photo/Ryan M. Kelly, File)
AP/File
Louisville lined up for a play against Virginia in Charlottesville in 2016.

Here’s to the days when we can again laugh together at awkward coincidences, even as we wonder whether those days will come again soon.

Under normal circumstances, this week’s staggeringly silly story about ESPN’s decision to pull broadcaster Robert Lee from calling the University of Virginia’s season-opening football game versus William & Mary on Sept. 2 because he shares a name with the Confederate general would be a mildly amusing throwaway line at the end of this column.

Instead, the decision, which seems innocuous enough if a little naive on ESPN’s part, has turned into a story that must be addressed with seriousness, even if the whole thing gives off the whiff of an agenda-driven cultural maelstrom in which the truth does not matter nearly as much as perception.

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The story began percolating when Clay Travis, an effectively antagonistic college football blogger and Fox Sports 1 caterwauler, reported on his blog that ESPN had decided to remove Lee, who is Asian-American, from the broadcast. Travis shoved forth the narrative that the decision was an example of politically correct liberal pandering by ESPN.

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Conservative sites such as Breitbart seized on the story and Travis’s angle, and suddenly Lee, a relatively unknown broadcaster who primarily calls games for Siena College, was drawing far more unwelcome attention than had he just called the game.

ESPN said the decision to remove Lee from the broadcast was mutual, and was made to keep him from being the target of Internet derision and a source of memes once a few wiseguys with photoshop skills made the connection between his name, the game he was calling, and the recent tragedy in Charlottesville related to the removal of a Robert E. Lee statue.

In ESPN’s quest to avoid controversy, it instead became a party in creating it, though the network probably would have gotten by unscathed had Travis not been tipped off to the move by an ESPN source.

The network wasn’t being politically correct. It was being paranoid. The fundamental misread is that it did not consider what would happen if someone with a significant audience and an anti-ESPN agenda got wind of the decision. And the network clearly didn’t consider that the backlash would create significantly more Internet grief for Lee than just letting him call the game.

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“[This was] no biggie until someone leaked it to embarrass us,” said an ESPN spokesperson to New York Magazine’s Yashar Ali. “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.”

In a memo posted on ESPN’s internal site Wednesday, network president John Skipper confirmed to his employees that there was never any concern that having Lee call the game might offend a pocket of viewers.

Skipper’s statement: “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.

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“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 missing piece in all of this is Lee’s perspective. He hasn’t spoken publicly about the decision, and it would be helpful to learn whether he indeed felt some trepidation about calling the game, or whether ESPN nudged him.

For now, he is the only truly sympathetic character in this. He was relatively obscure before this. Now his name is always going to be associated with this silly drama. He is the collateral damage in one more petty battle in our massive cultural war.

That seems like an awful lot to go through for a guy who once told his local paper he was named after Robert Redford.

Dennis returns

John Dennis, the longtime morning show cohost on WEEI who left last August, tweeted that he will host WRKO’s morning show this Saturday from 9 a.m.-noon. The WEEI program, with Kirk Minihane alongside Gerry Callahan, has seen its ratings surge since the lineup change . . . ESPN host Ryen Russillo was arrested this week in Wyoming and charged with misdemeanor criminal entry. According to police, Russillo, 42, entered a condominium that wasn’t his and the “highly intoxicated male [refused] to leave.” ESPN has not said whether Russillo will face punishment.