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ESPN Chief Defends Robert Lee Assignment Switch, Blames Controversy on ‘Someone With a Personal Agenda’

ESPN chief John Skipper has defended the sports powerhouse’s decision to switch announcer Robert Lee from the University of Virginia’s opening game on Sept. 2 because his name is the same as the Confederate general who figured into the violence that erupted in the college’s home town of Charlottesville, Va., earlier this month.

In a memo sent to ESPN staffers Wednesday evening, Skipper asserted that the goal was to avoid the possibility of Lee facing social media “hectoring.” He also reinforced that Lee was given the choice of assignments and that he opted to switch to a different game, and Skipper blasted the motivation of those spread word of Lee’s assignment shift earlier this week.

“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 wrote.

“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. 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.”

Lee had previously been scheduled to call UVA’s home game against College of William and Mary. But after the shocking incidents at the Aug. 12 white supremacists rally in Charlottesville that left a local woman dead, ESPN executives and Lee came to the mutual decision that it would be better for him to shift to another game that day.

The spark of the violence in Charlottesville was the white supremacist protest over the city’s decision to remove a statue of Gen. Robert E. Lee from a local park. News of ESPN’s switch was first reported Tuesday evening by the sports news website Outkick the Coverage, which derisively referred to ESPN as “MSESPN” to indicate what it views as liberal bias injected into its news and event coverage (MS being a reference to MSNBC).

“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. In that moment it felt right to all parties,” ESPN said in a statement issued Tuesday. “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.”

ESPN executives were concerned about Robert Lee, who is Asian-American, becoming the butt of painful jokes and hurtful Internet memes. But the cabler’s decision was savaged in social media, with many accusing ESPN of being overly sensitive and condescending in the expectation of a negative reaction.

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