ESPN’s Robert Lee off Virginia football game after Charlottesville

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When the Charlottesville protests erupted two weekends ago, ESPN executives — or better or worse — wondered if there might be an issue on their hands.

With Robert E. Lee suddenly back in the news, they feared Robert Lee, a young, new play-by-play announcer assigned to the Virginia-William & Mary game on opening weekend, would show up in Twitter memes and posts on Web sites like Awful Announcing or Deadspin. They were worried that his big moment, even on a lightly watched game, might turn into a national joke.

According to an ESPN executive, who spoke on the condition of anonymity due to the sensitivity of the situation, ESPN asked Lee if he would be more comfortable calling another game but gave him the option to stay. Lee chose to switch assignments, and ESPN accommodated him.

This would never have been an issue at all, except for the fact that it was leaked to Clay Travis of Outkick the Coverage, who frequently critiques ESPN and has accused the company of having a liberal bias.

Travis wrote about it on his Web site Tuesday night and it exploded into a national story, with Travis appearing on Tucker Carlson’s Fox News program.

It seems ESPN was hoping to shield their employee from any potential ridicule or embarrassment. Instead, they made a mountain out of a molehill and the entire thing has backfired spectacularly.

ESPN released the following statement: “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. 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.”

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