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Insider perspective on ESPN decision to pull Robert Lee from UVA football

Yes, it really happened, what you read about ESPN pulling an unfortunately named broadcaster named Robert Lee from a UVA football broadcast.

uva footballAnd, no, The Worldwide Leader wasn’t trying to save Mr. Lee the indignity of having to call a UVA football game.

“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,” ESPN acknowledged in an awkwardly written statement Tuesday night. “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.”

USA Today reported that a network source had indicated that ESPN had asked Lee if he would be more comfortable calling another game, but gave him the option to stay as the play-by-play man on the Cavs’ season opener with William & Mary on Sept. 2.

Lee, according to the source, chose to switch assignments, and ESPN moved to accommodate him, putting him on Pitt’s opener with Youngstown State.

Lee has not yet commented on the story, first broken by ESPN critic Clay Travis on his Outkick the Coverage blog.

An Asian American, Lee is a Syracuse graduate who has been broadcasting college and pro sports since 1995 and been calling games on ESPNU and ESPN3 the past two years.

Full disclosure: I have also been broadcasting games on the ESPN family of networks, specifically ESPN3, the past two years.

Whatever inside knowledge I can offer is probably rather limited. All I can presume is that the process for assigning talent to college football is different from that which is used to assign talent to college baseball, which is where I have been featured on ESPN3 the past two seasons.

I’ve called games for VMI and UNC Greensboro the past two springs. For each, my point of contact has been the school of the home team, not ESPN itself.

Which is to say, I’ve had no contact with anybody from ESPN in any way, shape or form. Even in terms of getting paid, the paychecks actually come from the schools, not ESPN.

I have no doubt that football, the cash machine of college sports, is different than baseball, which is in essence treated as an Olympic sport, on the level of lacrosse and track and field for broadcasting purposes.

Even a UVA-William & Mary game, on the lowest rung of ESPN3 broadcasts on opening weekend, is going to get treated differently than my Southern Conference baseball games.

That said, as much as we know there aren’t many people watching, either my Southern Conference college baseball games or the UVA-William & Mary football game in two weeks, what’s the issue here, again?

Folks who read my columns on Augusta Free Press know me well enough that I don’t have to tell them my political leanings.

I’m not shy about my liberal-progressive bona fides. It’s in my bio.

Also in my bio: I’m a UVA alum.

And clear as well, from my column archive: I’m a Southerner with Southern DNA dating back to the 1730s who wants those damn Confederate monuments in public spaces removed, stat.

So when I say this move by whoever at ESPN to reach out to Lee to ask him to switch to another game because somebody might be offended, I dunno, it isn’t obvious to the rest of y’all already?

The last thing I want to do is concede any point to Clay Travis on anything, but he’s right on this one.

I’ll be in the press box for AFP at Scott Stadium in two weeks when UVA and William & Mary kick off.

At most, I would’ve chuckled when seeing Robert Lee’s name in the game notes on the handout at my seat, and not thought another thing about it.

And as much as I’d like to think that folks watching me in the spring doing Southern Conference baseball can’t wait to see if I’m doing their game, I know the reality.

Those of us who aren’t stars are just part of the wallpaper. Basically, we do our jobs, we aim to do them well, and it’s usually the case if you don’t remember our names, that means we haven’t screwed anything up.

I’d bet Robert Lee would’ve done a great job calling UVA-William & Mary, and I hope he gets the chance to do a game in Charlottesville sometime this fall.

OK, actually, as a long time UVA football observer, who foresees another 2-10 season for the guys from the alma mater, I’m happy for him that he gets a Pitt team that did post a win over eventual national champ Clemson last year, and I hope he gets more plum assignments after.

I feel for the guy, that his name is out there now like this, and not because he did a great job calling a game.

Column by Chris Graham


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