SBD/August 24, 2017/Media

Skipper Defends Moving Announcer Off Game; Columnists Call Decision Self-Inflicted Wound

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Skipper targeted the motivation of those who spread word of Lee's assignment shift
ESPN President John Skipper last night defended the net's decision to move announcer Robert Lee off the Sept. 2 William & Mary-Virginia football game in Charlottesville, stating in a memo sent to ESPN employees that the "goal was to avoid the possibility of Lee facing social media 'hectoring,'" according to VARIETY. He also "reinforced that Lee was given the choice of assignments and that he opted to switch to a different game." Skipper "blasted the motivation" of the people who "spread word of Lee's assignment shift earlier this week." Skipper in the memo wrote, "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. 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” (VARIETY.com, 8/23). The Asian American Journalists Association in an email said it is "unfortunate that someone's name, particularly a last name that is common among Asian Americans, can be a potential liability." The AAJA added, "We do not, however, believe this decision was motivated by race" (WASHINGTON POST, 8/24).

CAUSING DAMAGE TO THEMSELVES: In K.C., Pete Grathoff noted ESPN may have been "trying to preemptively avoid outrage" by moving Lee off the UVA game in Charlottesville, but the net instead "created it" (KANSASCITY.com, 8/23). SI.com's Richard Deitsch wrote the move is a "self-inflicted wound and a decision made out of fear of negative press." ESPN would have been "far better served with Lee doing the game and dealing with the one-day fallout ... of jokes and snickers" (SI.com, 8/23). In Chicago, Phil Rosenthal wrote in "trying to avoid one kind of social media backlash, ESPN has stumbled into another." If the net's intent was to "quietly get on with its business by reassigning one of the thousands of people in the United States named Robert Lee ... it was a failure of fantastic proportions" (CHICAGOTRIBUNE.com, 8/23). In DC, Cindy Boren wrote ESPN "came to what it deemed to be the lesser of two bad choices -- and somehow made the poorer one." The move will be the "topic of intense conversation for weeks to come" (WASHINGTONPOST.com, 8/23). In N.Y., Maureen Callahan writes this was the "biggest unforced error of the week" (N.Y. POST, 8/24). Rick Jaffe, the Vegas Stats & Information Network Exec Producer who formerly was Fox Sports Senior VP/News, said if ESPN "never brings this up ... absolutely nothing would have happened." Jaffe: "It would have been a non-issue. ... Sometimes, every boss or decision-maker overthinks things, and I think that's totally the case on this one" (USATODAY.com, 8/23). 

GIVING CRITICS MORE FODDER: In N.Y., Marc Tracy notes the move has "left one inescapable conclusion: However many times sports media outlets ... are implored to 'stick to sports,' the centripetal force of politics is bound to make a battlefield of almost anything." The decision provided "new fodder for those who accuse ESPN of liberal bias." While the move was made "for business considerations, it nonetheless provided a forum for longstanding complaints over ESPN's perceived slant." It seems clear ESPN "blundered by overestimating its ability to keep its and Lee’s decision quiet and underestimating the reaction once it became public" (N.Y. TIMES, 8/24). YAHOO FINANCE's Daniel Roberts wrote dealing with the response to moves like the one with Lee is ESPN's "reality, and has been for a couple years now, as the noise around ESPN's supposed liberal politics has grown louder." Roberts: "These days, everything ESPN does is fodder for political-based criticism. It finds itself in a lose-lose situation" (FINANCE.YAHOO.com, 8/23). Univ. of Alabama Sports Communications Program Dir Dr. Andy Billings said, "Failing to realize the potential fallout from opting to shift Lee ... opened the company to the oft-levied claims of liberal bias" (FOXBUSINESS.com, 8/23). In Pittsburgh, Sean Gentille wrote this was "about as big a mistake as ESPN can make. Gentille: "It propagates the growing myth that they have a willful political slant, rather than a desire to make as much money as possible" (POST-GAZETTE.com, 8/23). In L.A., Mark Whicker writes this was an "early Christmas present for the circling opportunists, who, incorrectly, have cast ESPN as some sort of left-wing clearinghouse." Whicker: "All of ESPN's good work can be subsumed by one frivolous moment like this" (L.A. DAILY NEWS, 8/24).

A CASE OF OVERTHINKING: SI.com's Jimmy Traina wrote ESPN "grossly overreacted," and it was an "over-the-top and completely unnecessary decision." However, it "wasn't coming from an evil or nefarious place." Traina: "It came from a place of over-sensitivity. It also wasn't a political message. ... At the end of the day, it's really not a big deal and ESPN doesn't deserve the major crushing it's taking" (SI.com, 8/23). In Maine, Drew Bonifant writes the move "on its face ... isn’t an outrage." ESPN "isn’t being a bully" and it "didn’t ban Lee from the assignment." Bonifant: "All evidence suggests that it didn’t strong-arm him into agreeing to an assignment change. It’s silly, over-the-top and unnecessary" (KENNEBEC JOURNAL & MORNING SENTINEL, 8/24). In Buffalo, Kimberley Martin writes ESPN "allowed overthinking and oversensitivity to lead to overreaction" (BUFFALO NEWS, 8/24). SPORTS ON EARTH's Will Leitch: "This was simply a dumb incident, a massive corporation trying to corral something it does not, still, entirely understand" (SPORTSONEARTH.com, 8/23).
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