In an effort to avoid associating one of its employees with the ongoing controversy over the leader of a failed white supremacist uprising 156 years earlier, ESPN and/or broadcaster Robert Lee decided Lee should do play-by-play for the Youngstown State-Pitt game on Sept. 2, rather than William & Mary-Virginia. Virginia plays in Charlottesville, the site of a recent murder amid a rally in defense of Confederate general Robert E. Lee’s statue.
It’s hard to deny “hi, I’m Robert Lee, coming to you live from Charlottesville” would’ve led to internet mockery, because this is the internet. Even though it was just the non-televised FCS opener for maybe the ACC’s worst team, it only would’ve taken one person noticing it for it to become a thing.
But because this is, again, the internet, the decision by ESPN and/or Lee didn’t remain an internal matter.
That the news leaked isn’t that big of a deal — it is a pretty fascinating personnel move — but the story became a big deal as anger-prone media chose to get angry about it. This was all a sign that the politically correct ESPN was at it again, erasing white people by banning an Asian-American from Virginia’s campus (none of that happened, but facts rarely matter), or whatever.
ESPN confirmed the news, and everyone yelled some more. Hours later, ESPN was still explaining.
The explanation makes plenty of sense.
New: internal memo from ESPN prez John Skipper about the Robert Lee decision pic.twitter.com/3yFk4hbDRb— Brian Stelter (@brianstelter) August 24, 2017
If you’ve ever been in a planning meeting at work, you can imagine how this happened. I don’t think I know anyone in the room, but I can picture someone realizing the coincidence, someone else making a joke, and a third person realizing this could be a huge distraction, like the kind we’re always told athletes have to watch out for. At that point, maybe someone spoke up about how easy it would be to just switch which minor game Lee calls. Really sinister forces at work.
Now the angry people could stand to do some explaining.
I was never able to get an illuminating answer on exactly what people were unhappy about. Who was harmed by the decision? Can you name the person whose life is worse because of it? But I’ll trust it felt good to holler. Goodness knows we don’t get to do that very often these days.
I also don’t understand what trying to keep an employee from being memed has to do with anybody’s supposed liberal bias, but those who’ve figured out the connection assure us it’s really scary stuff.
It does sound silly at first, sure.
A lot of people, including an ESPN employee whose full name rhymes with Lee’s, said the whole thing sounded like an Onion headline.
Rather worried my employee ID/pass may not admit me in the AM. Life, as scripted by @OnionSports.— Bob Ley (@BobLeyESPN) August 23, 2017
It does, yeah.
Once you think about it, though, it’s easy to see ESPN’s reasoning, even though it backfired once it became public. Either way, it’s a long way from silly to outrageous.
Some people are also upset about a supposed racial element here.
But that’s also hard to articulate beyond “the announcer’s not white,” probably because there’s nothing to get mad about there, either.
Yes, he is Asian. And according to LinkedIn, he’s a Syracuse alum. But this is as much discrimination against Syracuse alumni as it is discrimination against Asians. In other words, this is a red herring.
Similarly, there are a lot of people posting pictures of Commentator Lee next to Dead General Lee, with some really clever insight about how these two look nothing alike.
ESPN isn’t saying they’re afraid of people confusing the two. They’re being sensitive to the fact that people are going to take a football game commentator and make a big stink about how ironic it is that, after all this protest and counter-protest, “Robert Lee” has come back to Charlottesville after all. They were hoping to quietly avoid the situation, but of course the Twitterati wouldn’t let that happen.
Here’s the TL;DR: ESPN didn’t make a story out of this. The internet did. They’re not saying Lee is incapable of broadcasting. Race has nothing to do with this. From ESPN’s view, they weren’t being overdramatic, they were just making a sensible decision that Lee also agreed with.
Literally the only person who could have any possible reason to be angry about any of this would be Lee.
His name is now attached to hundreds of stories that have nothing to do with his job performance, despite the attempt to avoid exactly that.
Or Lee would have legit beef if he’d had his heart set on UVA, for some reason. His new game is undeniably a better game (the cupcake underdog in YSU-Pitt might be as good as the favored home team in W&M-UVA) and closer to home, though, so it’s hard to imagine that’s the case.
Again, he now doesn’t have to call the non-televised FCS opener for maybe the ACC’s worst team.