Last Saturday, the Los Angeles Times’ sports section looked as if it had morphed into the Travel section.
More specifically, the Traveler section.
A nearly full front page story dedicated to the USC equine mascot made it appear there was compelling news to be gleaned. A photo that big with a headline that large couldn’t be there to draw attention unless something important was up.
Instead, it curiously blew up a queer story that started in the university’s Daily Trojan newspaper reporting on a black student group that questioned the origins of Traveler’s name. Specifically, Traveler “comes under scrutiny” for “having a name similar” to the horse once ridden by Confederate general Robert E. Lee.
Pat Saukko DeBarnardi, the widow of former Traveler rider Richard Saukko, is quoted as saying in the Times: “The problem is this: Maybe three weeks ago it was fine. So now the flavor of the day is . . . we all have to be in hysteria. . . . It’s more of a political issue. The horse isn’t political and neither am I.”
Neither is Robert Lee, an ESPN broadcaster who now comes on the national radar not because of his work but also because of a similar name.
From 1862 until his surrender in 1865, ESPN college football announcer Robert Lee commanded the Confederate Army of Northern Virginia. pic.twitter.com/eQKXyXRNgl
— NotKennyRogers (@NotKennyRogers) August 23, 2017
When that Times’ Traveler story ran online in all its curious overplay, a friend texted me: “Do you think there will now be a movement on campus to make Asian students with the last name of Lee change it to something else?”
A day after the rare sighting of a solar eclipse, an even stranger story transformed into social media fodder. Another friend texted Tuesday night a link to a piece about how ESPN “pulled” its Asian broadcaster Robert Lee from an assignment that would have had him calling a University of Virginia Sept. 2 football game against William and Mary for the online ESPN3 site and ACC Network. It moved him to an equally uneventful Youngstown State at Pitt game that day.
It’s apparent these days that one must be careful what completely off-the-wall jokes you make. Someone will take them seriously enough to consider the ramifications and then act upon them.
But not even The Onion or Sports Pickle or even SI’s Extra Mustard was in play here (and why is it always food related when sports goes nutty?)
Sometimes real life supersedes made-up comedy. Or the storm that followed.
It took some time to confirm if this was even true, or true enough, or something that just was taking on a life of its own because of a prank.
But then the backlash has been predictably outrageous. Everyone must have an opinion on this … because. Or, sit there jaw dropped this has even happened.
I’m sitting here blown away about the ESPN Robert Lee story. You can’t make this shit up. Ron Burgundy is running ESPN.
— Jason Whitlock (@WhitlockJason) August 23, 2017
The followup piece by Southern California News Group sports columnist Mark Whicker — “Confederacy of dunces: What was ESPN thinking by reassigning announcer Robert Lee” — hits many of the same serious notes as stories that have appeared as well from every sports-talk radio show up the ladder to pieces on Fox News’ TV channel (which even had Martin Luther King Jr.’s niece appear to react to the story).
Until now, there are several reasons why we refrained from acting on invitations to appear on news talk and news-gathering radio shows over the last two days about this ESPN/Lee development.
First, Lee himself has yet to explain his part, if any, in the reassignment. That’s vital to how this is framed.
Was he uncomfortable with going to Charlottesville, Va., in the wake of recent protests over the Robert E. Lee statue that sparked rioting and led to the death and injury of bystanders? Does he not want to speak because he disagrees with ESPN’s preemptive decision?
Second, would anyone even know about this if not for the strange agenda that appears to be in motion by Fox Sports’ Born On Third Base Clay Travis, whose “Outkick The Coverage” radio show seems to have not just taken the lead in getting this out there but also fanning the flames so as many others know about it and try to cast a bad light on ESPN? Travis has also been helping Fox News’ Tucker Carlson carry the ball as far as possible with this.
There are too many other unanswered questions that warrant answers before intelligent opinions can be drawn.
But why wait for any of that? If you’ve not chimed in by now, you’re behind the news cycle, and there is something else bright and shiny to opine about next.
Let’s try to at least take a deeper breath instead of adding to the hot air about a broadcaster who does games for a video streaming site that many don’t even know how to locate.
One media insider told me he thought ESPN “just won a couple of days of publicity” because of all this, no matter that Travis has such a bad reputation in the business that it’s a miracle he still has any job in it.
“ESPN should have managed this better and had (their employee) say, ‘I’m glad ESPN worked with me to make this easier for everyone and me’.'”
Still, nothing. The “story” needs a conclusion so most of us can move on. Maybe an episode of ESPN’s “Outside the Lines” with host Bob Ley (full name: Robert A. Ley, pronounced “Lee”) would do it.
Yet, most of what has circulated for consumption and more hand wringing is an internal memo from ESPN president John Skipper that makes a reference to Travis that he is “disappointed that the good intentions of our Charlotte colleagues have been intentionally hijacked by someone with a persona agenda”:
New: internal memo from ESPN prez John Skipper about the Robert Lee decision pic.twitter.com/3yFk4hbDRb
— Brian Stelter (@brianstelter) August 24, 2017
Another statement that got around was an ESPN spokesperson who said the decision was made collectively and “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.”
And then this:
Just received this email from an ESPN executive re the Robert Lee controversy. pic.twitter.com/OuBORlWO9f
— Yashar Ali (@yashar) August 23, 2017
But those seem to be ignored in the narrative that continues to circle the drain.
You can’t give ESPN the benefit of the doubt in trying to do something to avoid trouble?
In the end, ESPN benefited from “a volume play,” our media insider says, because it was “mentioned for a good 48 hours, good, bad or otherwise.”
Publicity it could have done without.
Good was lapped by bad, snark and everything else. It’s too late to bring this back in. ESPN has to own it and move on.
We’ve reached a circular point in the conversation to where Baltimore Ravens broadcaster Gerry Sandusky was asked by the Baltimore Sun to chime in on this and how sharing a name with someone rather notorious doesn’t have to be a scarlet letter.
“It’s reached a level of epidemic insanity when a guy named Robert Lee is taken off a broadcast at a Virginia football game because we’re so hung up on the way people’s names sound, the color of people’s skin, what kind of food they’re eating, whether they’re Republican or Democrat, whether they’re a blue state or a red state,” said Sandusky.
“We have so lost touch with the simple, conversational rules of humanity, of giving people their space to have their name, their preferences, their backgrounds, as long as those aren’t hurting anybody.
“The one thing we can always control is our reaction. And as soon as you understand that if you don’t react to the haters, you take their power away. People are free to hate all they want. But if you don’t react to it, then you don’t add any fuel to the fire, and eventually it’ll die out. America’s gone through much bigger crises than a broadcaster named Gerry Sandusky or a broadcaster named Robert Lee. …
“If he’s good at what he does, which seems to be, then he’ll get other opportunities, and I think it’ll probably be kind of an eye-opener for him. You just can’t get too caught up in what everybody else thinks.”
— CNN (@CNN) August 23, 2017
And until Mr. Lee gives us his take on all this, even in a short burst of tweets, we shall attempt to refrain from further judgement. Hasn’t the news cycle timed out anyway?
Perhaps a fitting conclusion would be for ESPN to assign Lee to call a USC game this season, then let him ride into the broadcast booth on Traveler.
Makes as much sense as anything else at this point.
== The latest edition of NBC’s “Saturday Night Live” Weekend Update summer edition brought up the ESPN-Lee case. The punchline, as delivered by Michael Che, is that ESPN would replace Lee on the broadcast with someone named “Whitey Powers.” Note Che’s reaction.
== Stu Lantz, who has logged 30 seasons as the Lakers’ TV color analyst, half of them with Chick Hearn before his passing in 2002, will be joined by retired horse race track announcer Trevor Denman in becoming the 36th and 37th members of the Southern California Sports Broadcasters Hall of Fame at their January 22, 2018 awards ceremony at Lakeside Country Club, the organization announced this week.
“We’ve wanted to bestow this honor on Stu for several years,” said SCSB executive director Rand Elkins. “In fact, we actually waited until the Lakers schedule was released in order to include Stu in the SCSB Hall of Fame. And as for Trevor, although he’s known as much for public address as he is for TV, he’s a true legend in his sport.”
The SCBA announced earlier this summer that retired Kings play-by-play man Bob Miller would be the recipient of the newly named Vin Scully Lifetime Achievement Award. Miller, inducted into the SCBA Hall in 2002, is the organization’s former president.
(More on Denman from this 2013 piece we had the honor of doing with him)
== There may be no greater asset on a baseball franchise’s broadcasting lineup card than Jose Mota, who, in his 16h year with the Angels broadcast team and 21st season with Fox Sports, proved again his versatility and ability to do what’s needed.
As he did English play-by-play on the KLAA-AM (830) during the Angels-Orioles series in Baltimore last weekend since Terry Smith moved to TV when Victor Rojas took some time off, the 52-year-old Mota didn’t realize it until he was told by longtime team communications director Tim Mead that some broadcast history was accomplished — no one else had done play-by-play in English and Spanish, each on radio and on TV, as well as working as an analyst on both platforms in each language, for one team.
“That’s pretty special,” said the Glendora native. “It’s being at the right places at the right time in the right market.”
ESPN’s Spanish-language baseball website marked the occasion with this story quoting Mota: “Gracias a los Angelinos y al propietario Arturo Moreno por darme confianza para seguir creciendo y aprovechar esta ventana que me ha dado la oportunidad de traer a la luz esas historias que se conocen en nuestra cultura, pero que son desconocidas para los aficionados norteamericanos que solo hablan inglés.”
== Congrats to Jon SooHoo for his first Sports Illustrated cover shot, to go with this (regional) cover story:
== Brian Custer is the host, WWE man Mauro Ranallo has the call, Al Bernstein is the analyst and Pauline Malinaggi handles interviews for the Showtime crew covering the Floyd Mayweather Jr.-Conor McGregor spectacle on Saturday (pay-per-view, $99.95) for those who wondered how short straws were distributed.
== Data that shows, despite the Dodgers’ lack of distribution for SportsNet LA, it is still outdrawing the Angels on Fox Sports West in prime time, 1.78 to 1.14.
The Dodgers continue to have five more games this season on KTLA-Channel 5 each Tuesday through the end of the season — at Arizona this Tuesday (6:40 p.m.), vs. Arizona from Dodger Stadium on Sept. 5 (7:10 p.m.), at San Francisco on Sept. 12 (7:05 p.m.), at Philadelphia on Sept. 19 (4 p.m.), and home vs. San Diego on Sept. 26 (7:10 p.m.)
== The newly launched Olympic Channel makes good on a promise to celebrate the 25th anniversary of the 1992 Barcelona Olympics with “Dream Team Week,” showing all eight original broadcasts of the U.S. basketball “Dream Team” during those Summer Games starting Monday at 5:30 p.m. There is also an 11-hour presentation on Sept. 4 that leads into a rebroadcast of the gold medal game. Don’t have the Olympic Channel yet? Neither do we. It’s an added cost on our cable system that we have not yet been compelled to absorb.
== Ken Rosenthal has found a new platform that will appreciate his written word at the new TheAthletic.com, as he explains:
BREAKING: I’m joining The Athletic. Here’s why: https://t.co/eLlN0cnvKN
— Ken Rosenthal (@Ken_Rosenthal) August 23, 2017
== ESPN will do five NBA exhibition games in October, starting with a Lakers-Sacramento game in Las Vegas (Oct. 8, 6 p.m.) and a Lakers-Utah game two nights later (7:30 p.m.)
== Why ESPN’s Ryen Russillo has a new mugshot in circulation. He is tall, isn’t he?
== What’s the demand for “Megacast” treatment for the Ohio State-Indiana college football opener next Thursday?
== Why Facebook feels the need to videostream college football games otherwise of little consequence.
== NBCSN’s first try in Esports, the Universal Open Rocket League from Santa Ana, airs Saturday at 9 p.m. and Sunday at 6 p.m. The competitors include a team of 16-year-olds from Agoura Hills and Studio City. The competition is at the 15,000-square foot eSports Arena (120 W 5th Street, Santa Ana).
== ESPN also says it will expand “SportsCenter with Scott Van Pelt” to six nights a week once football season launches on Sept. 10. The current SC with SVP started Sept. 7, 2015 and “was designed to showcase Van Pelt’s passion for sports with his self-deprecating wit and disposition toward celebrating stars and storylines,” according to an ESPN press missive.
== A real story via Esquire: “Bob Costas’s Guide to BS’ing Your Way Through a Sports Conversation … Good for any situation except the middle of a broadcast.”
== Somehow Vin Scully’s name pops up in this obit of big band era singer Bea Wain … because her husband once did Brooklyn Dodgers’ games with him. Remember Andre Barush? It’s true, from 1954 to ’55, with Scully and Connie Desmond, right after Red Barber left and before Jerry Doggett arrived.
== Meanwhile, “ESPN’s Surrender to Grim New Reality:With cable TV subscribers fleeing, the sports giant has to look for customers online. That’s not where the money is.” Says Bloomberg.
== We sorta get the constant jabbing at the Dodgers for not getting this SportsNet LA distribution done — and even blaming them when, in this case, it’s not their fault the TV went out — but having the radio broadcast on KLAC-AM (570) ain’t always the best option, either.
While the mention in the link above is that Rick Monday (in for the vacationing Charley Steiner) and Kevin Kennedy did admirable in not saying there was a no-hitter (or perfect game) going on when Rich Hill was amidst history on Tuesday, it should also be noted: When the game ended in the bottom of the 10th, Monday wasn’t sure if the ball hit was in fact a home run (after a long delay) and he had the Pirates batter who hit it incorrect (it wasn’t Starling Marte, but Josh Harrison). Until he was corrected. Make that …
Even when Steiner isn’t there, he’s there.