Transparency needed at ESPN

Two of the bigger sports media stories this past week involved ESPN, with the all-sports network doing something seemingly silly in one instance and then, at least initially, nothing at all in the other instance.

Both stories came with an impact that casual sports fans in our region might notice.

First, ESPN confirmed it would pull Robert Lee from the broadcast booth of the season-opening William & Mary-Virginia college football game on Sept. 2 because of his name.

Network officials said the change in assignment was a joint decision with Lee, who lives in upstate New York and, by all accounts, is capable and respected for his work. He might not be an A-list talent, but he knows what he’s doing.

Still, he will not work next week at UVa, in Charlottesville, Virginia, where conflicts and protests earlier this month, in part about a statue of Civil War general Robert E. Lee, led to one death and nearly two dozen injuries.

Had the move not gone public, it was a nondescript matter because the game will air only online in many parts of the country. And if it was a joint decision, just to avoid any mockery or tolling, that’s a fine motive.

Unfortunately, it just looks bad because it feels like ESPN is letting politics impact its decision.

Now, that’s probably the case almost every day in some ways, but in our politically charged times, something as seemingly mundane as this becomes bigger as a result.

For folks in our region, Lee will not be without work on the opening weekend. He’ll instead work Youngstown State-Pitt, a lateral move to a game that will also be online only in most parts of the country.

Network officials said the Pitt assignment would allow Lee to get home to his family easier after the game. Again, another logical reason. But if geography really matters it’s interesting that it apparently was a consideration from the start.

In the second ESPN-related case, radio and TV host Ryen Russillo was arrested and charged Wednesday in Jackson, Wyoming, after being found intoxicated and undressed in the wrong condominium. He apparently entered the wrong room after a night out.

It will probably end up being a relatively minor matter, something unlikely to cost him his job but maybe keep him off the air briefly.

Had he been any other network’s personality there’s a good chance ESPN would have covered the story, at least in a small way. If he’d been an athlete or coach, it certainly would’ve been a story.

It’s not surprising that the network did not initially offer a statement, and one might be forthcoming after they’ve had time to talk to Russillo and formulate a plan of action.

Let’s hope that’s the case, because even in minor matters there’s a chance for transparency and trust that can resonate with fans.

Watching WHVL

Weekly high school football games return to WHVL-TV this season, with Joe Putnam and Sam Stroh calling the action. Games air live at 7 p.m. Fridays.

Action kicked off this week with DuBois at Clearfield.

Here’s the station’s September schedule: Sept. 1, Central at Tyrone; Sept. 8, Bishop McCort at Bishop Guilfoyle; Sept. 15, Huntingdon at Clearfield; Sept. 22, Bellwood-Antis at Moshannon Valley; and Sept. 29, Carlisle at State College.

Tuner tidbits

n Coach James Franklin’s weekly radio show, which started Thursday without him for the first week (he typically appears only game weeks) will originate from Primanti Bros. in downtown State College this year. That might change the atmosphere in the room, with more students able to easily attend, and produce a different vibe on the air this season. We’ll see … or actually hear. As part of his recently renewed contract, Franklin gets $2 million annually from the athletic department’s media contract.

n Action at the Little League World Series concludes with the championship game that airs at 3 this afternoon on ABC. Again, while some bemoan the big business of the event (and there’s a lot to complain about there that gets past any kind of serious media coverage), the Series usually produces compelling action and feel-good stories. Thanks to ESPN and solid planning on Little League’s part, we got that again this year. Some not-as-nice stories were conveniently overlooked this year as well.

n Belated kudos to all involved with the MLB Little League Classic — last week’s matchup between the Pittsburgh Pirates and St. Louis Cardinals at Bowman Field. Sure, it had a lot of made-for-TV aspects, but some feel-good sports moments are fine these days. From the investments in the facility to the demeanor of the players (at least those featured during the coverage) and the reaction of the fans, the event seemed special and successful. It’s also something that seems to be easily repeatable, with many major league teams within a reasonable distance of Williamsport for the Classic to continue for the next few years. For example, reaction to and support for games featuring the Phillies, Orioles, Mets, Yankees or Nationals would probably be just as strong as it was for the inaugural participants.

Sampsell can be reached at stevesampsell@gmail.com.

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