On Robert Lee, The Other Robert Lee, ESPN And The American Way

DALLAS (105.3 THE FAN) – Robert Lee’s bio states that he is the play-by-play voice of the Siena College men’s basketball team in (Loudonville, N.Y., and that he also works high school games. It therefore must’ve qualified as quite a thrill for him to draw an assignment from ESPN to broadcast Virginia’s season-opening football game on Sept. 2 against William & Mary.

And then it must’ve been quite a shock for him to learn that he’d been “un-assigned’’ from working in Charlottesville — site of the recent unrest caused by White Supremacists — because Robert Lee, an Asian-American, shares the same first and last name of the Confederate general.

Yes, an assortment of ESPN spokespersons have tried to defend their political-correctness-run-amok move.

ESPN senior director of communications Keri Potts to SI.com:

“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.”

Then to New York Magazine:

“No biggie until someone leaked it to embarrass us. 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.”

So … it was kinda Robert Lee’s own idea to unplug himself from the greatest professional opportunity of his lifetime?

That’s possible, but illogical. Until Lee himself confirms such a thing, I find it unlikely that the play-by-play guy from Siena College is ordering around “The Worldwide Leader’’ regarding which assignments he’d be willing to do them a favor and accept.

More likely: The assignment change (Lee will now be shifting to ESPN3 to work Youngstown State at Pittsburgh) was “forced,’’ in a way, by the overreaction to conservative knucklehead Clay Travis’ reporting the story on his Outkick the Coverage site and on Fox Sports Radio.

How do we know ESPN overreacted? The “someone leaked it to embarrass us’’ echoes like the words of a child caught with his hand in the cookie jar. From the White House to Roger Goodell’s NFL hideaway to ESPN, there are no “embarrassing leaks’’ if there is wisdom and honestly and transparency.

Because there would be nothing to be embarrassed about.

One PR voice reportedly noted they “didn’t think anyone would notice’’ the change, which seems to be a deadly sin in the world of public relations. The PR job is to anticipate the “notice’’ and to help guide public opinion once the higher-ups made a newsworthy decision.

And if this wasn’t going to be newsworthy before — maybe ESPN could’ve gotten out in front of the story by preemptively acknowledging the name coincidence — it certainly is now.

When will the “controversy’ fade? Oh, somewhere between the next 24 seconds and shortly after the Sept. 2 game. How far should ESPN run from it, given their obvious concern that a certain segment of the goofy sports media and some social-media-active fans who devour this sort of stuff via memes and jokes?

They shouldn’t run at all.

“If they don’t switch the guy, we get mocked for having a guy named Robert Lee on a Virginia game,” an ESPN employee told SI.com. “Can’t win.”

Well, if you “can’t win,’’ aren’t you all-the-more freed to simply do the right thing?

There are football players with the last name of “Butt.’’ They appear on TV. They catch passes. The camera shows the back of their jerseys. And Twitter snaps screenshots and snickers out fart jokes.

What is Mr. Butt or Mr. Dix or Mr. Robert Lee supposed to do? Run? Quit? “Change his assignment’’? Cry that he “can’t win’’?

Ironically, ESPN is announcing that it regrets this otherwise innocuous “story’’ morphing into a story … even though ESPN is the outlet that accidentally orchestrated the morphing. They were afraid of negative press because a person is named “Robert Lee.’’ As are about 11,000 other American males. As is their own stellar host Bob Ley.

And now there is silly humor, anyway. Probably more of it.

There is the obvious visual joke that evolves from simply putting photos of the two Robert Lees side-by-side. (They, um, are unlikely to be mistaken for one another.) There is my personal wish/joke: Gosh, if only the networks could dig up fireable proof of a Confederate General named “Skip.’’ And then there is the humorously sardonic note that we look so much to the football season to escape the constant barrage of political and social debate … and now even the football season is a battlefield for the barrage and for the debate.

What would’ve been the right thing to do? The same thing that’s still the right thing to do:

If ESPN is really still “The Worldwide Leader,’’ then lead.

If Robert Lee from Siena College really had the authority to unplug himself from the psuedo-controversy, he surely has the authority to plug back in, in a way that makes it not controversial at all. You do your job, on the biggest possible stage, in front of an audience more gigantic than Virginia’s season-opening football game on Sept. 2 against William & Mary would’ve ever possibly earned without you … and you kick ass with a nice suit and a fresh haircut and the best damned play-by-play effort of your natural life.

You don’t run, you don’t hide, you don’t shrink, you don’t leak, you don’t overreact, you don’t under-react.

You just work, which, with all due respect to memes and fart jokes, really is The American Way.

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