A simple assignment switch for a little-known play-by-play broadcaster has become a major headache for ESPN.

ESPN took flak Tuesday for moving a broadcaster named Robert Lee off a Virginia-William & Mary football game in Charlottesville, days after explosive clashes over the town’s decision to remove a statue of Confederate general Robert E. Lee. Critics claimed the network’s decision was an example of excessive political correctness, while others viewed it as an innocent attempt to dodge social-media mockery of the bizarre coincidence.

Well, we gained some insight into ESPN’s thinking Wednesday, thanks to an internal company memo obtained by CNN’s Brian Stelter. In the memo, ESPN president John Skipper says the network was not concerned about offending anyone and was instead worried Lee’s name might “create a distraction, or even worse, expose him to social hectoring or trolling.” He said the decision was made after consulting with Lee, who was also worried about the reaction and preferred to call the Pittsburgh-Youngstown State game he was eventually switched to.

Skipper also took a not-so-veiled shot at longtime ESPN antagonist Clay Travis, who broke the story about Lee switching assignments on his website, Outkick the Coverage. Travis portrayed the story as an example of ESPN’s chronic fear of offending over-sensitive viewers and said the network was seeking to “avoid offending idiots.” Skipper, in his memo, wrote that he was “disappointed that the good intentions of our Charlotte colleagues have been hijacked by someone with a personal agenda.”

Travis promptly appeared on Fox News’ Tucker Carlson Tonight, where he criticized ESPN for having an agenda:

“This is the problem with ESPN and their leadership. They talk to us like we’re a bunch of idiots and imbeciles and sell us crap and expect us to see it and think, ‘Oh my god, how lucky we are that ESPN is treating us this way.’

“This is not true. This is a lie. … ESPN is the most powerful sports media company in the world. If they come to an employee, who might make $75,000 a year and rarely ever gets to call college football games, and they say, ‘Hey, we’re a little bit concerned because you have the same name as Robert E. Lee in Charlottesville, do you really believe the guy making $75,000 a year makes the decision about whether he’s going to call the game?” 

Travis tweeted that he “lobotomized” Skipper in the segment.

It seems a bit silly that so many people have such strong opinions about this without hearing from Robert Lee himself. Is it so hard to believe that the guy would prefer to quietly call a Pittsburgh-Youngstown State game rather than risk a barrage of memes if he worked the game in Charlottesville (given that he didn’t know the decision to switch his assignment would become public)? As Travis says, it seems absurd that ESPN would fear offending viewers so much that they’d pull Robert Lee off a game in Charlottesville. So might it be that there was, in fact, a gentler motive?

Whether or not ESPN had any sort of nefarious intention in moving Lee off the Virginia game, this whole controversy does demonstrate just how distrustful some viewers are of the network. To Travis and many others, it’s absolutely impossible that ESPN made this decision to protect an employee and instead incontrovertible fact that it sought only to serve some sinister agenda.

About Alex Putterman

Alex is a writer and editor for The Comeback and Awful Announcing. He has written for The Atlantic, VICE Sports, MLB.com, SI.com and more. He is a proud alum of Northwestern University and The Daily Northwestern. You can find him on Twitter @AlexPutterman.

  • Joe Arnold

    And oh look it’s Brit McHenry too. Perfect fit for Faux.

    • Ja

      How dare a woman not be a leftist

      • Dan White

        Naw she is just an entitled twat.

        • NegGas

          Stay woke Dan.

      • Brent Garrison

        She isn’t gonna like you more Ja.

    • souvien

      Watch out Fox parking lot attendants!

  • John Vicari

    I dislike ESPN believing they were saving Lee from criticism, they were just trying to save face and made the move out of fear that if they let play out would have been nothing. I also dislike conservatives sites using him as a pundit in their agenda that is wrong. I want Lee to come out and speak his side but do understand why he hasn’t yet.

    • jimmylegs

      Maybe Lee doesn’t want to rock the boat? What happened to the Google employee who went against their narrative?

  • MrBull

    If Lee lives in Albany, then why didn’t espn simply have him do the Pitt game to begin with?….

  • Mike

    If there’s one guy out there who truly understands what it’s like to be lobotomized, it’s Clay Travis.

  • Carter_Burger67

    You know how ESPN could have avoided this? By not doing anything to call attention to it. Nobody knew who John Lee was, until ESPN went head first into the controversy. Hard to believe the network who fired Rush Limbaugh for being too political has now jumped into the political arena feet first.

    • MrBeepo

      They fired Limbaugh for what side of the political debate he was on. Had he been a liberal, like every other ESPN stooge, he would not have been fired.

      • Brent Garrison

        Bullshit. He basically called black quarterbacks second class citizens. In addition is was confined drug addict and was just an overall distraction. Sorry you are such a persecuted Trumpian.

        • MrBeepo

          Calm down snowflake. Take a Midol and try to relax. Only 7 1/2 more years of President Trump.

      • Carter_Burger67

        I know. That’s the point I was trying to make. ESPN is the MSNBC of the sports world.

  • Rob Hoffmann

    The real takeaway from this, as ever, is that Clay Travis is a braindead fuckwit, and should be ignored by anyone with an IQ that’s above zero.

    • Matt

      Boy, you sound like a class act.

      • Rob Hoffmann

        I’m giving Clay Travis all the respect he deserves. And frankly, your opinion of me is irrelevant.

        • Matt


    • Jeff

      So your law degree from Vanderbilt university is where exactly?

    • Marta

      So that’s why you didn’t ignore him😂🐑💩

  • souvien

    Dang, if Ku Klux Klay Travis didn’t have ESPN to flog, how would he fill the hours of his show? Would he just call Lebron a bitch for 3 hours a day?

    Perhaps he should spend more time attending to his lice ridden brats…

  • Ted Mark

    “They talk to us like we’re a bunch of idiots and imbeciles…” What’s your point, Clay?

  • markvidpa

    Good God, Clay needs laid.

    • SWalkerTTU

      Nah, he needs someone to Outkick the Crotch.

  • How out of touch Clay Travis is: he thinks ESPN is paying guys who work games on Saturdays $75,000 a year.

    Um, no.

    According to the bio page on his website, Lee has worked a total of 17 games for ESPNU and ESPN3 over the past two years.

    He gets a couple hundred bucks a game, maybe trans, maybe not.

    The Pitt game is his first ACC football game, and honestly, it’s a better game than the UVA game, and it’s closer to home.

    That kind of nuance gets lost when a self-appointed social injustice warrior decides to use a situation he clearly knows very little about to advance his quixotic personal agenda.

  • sportsfan365

    ESPN was afraid of a couple of critical tweets or memes by letting Lee work? Sometimes you just need to tell people who annoy you to get lost.

  • Matt

    Robert Lee will have a very hard to moving up in his career, thanks to ESPN.

  • alnc

    What a silly argument, this Travis guy is a gnat that talks about Espn more than his own sports show. Oh, look the FAKE Blonde parking attendant monitor Britt the bleach blonde. What a nice Faux debut for her, what a segment.

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  • BobLee Says

    On the Credibility-meter “Skippy” moves the needle about as much as Roger Goodell does… which is NOT AT ALL. Surely someone at Disney is thinking “time to toss this human pinata (Skipper) under a bus”

  • Marta

    It’s simple If you hate libtards and thier snobby ass know it all attitudes and whacked out anti American agenda’s
    Tell the cluless snowflakes including ESPN aka msnespn that you’ll never watch them again! Their ratings and leaders suck go figure!😂

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