Robert Lee lost something in Virginia — and 152 years later, another Robert Lee did, too.
The living Robert Lee, an ESPN broadcaster, was pulled from calling the University of Virginia home opener against William and Mary on Sept. 2 because he shares a name with the Confederate general at the center of unrest in Charlottesville.
“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,” Derek Volner, an ESPN spokesman, told The Washington Post in an emailed statement. “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.”
— Robert Lee (@RobertLeePXP) November 14, 2016
Volner declined to say if the network made a preemptive decision or responded to outside pressure to pull Lee from the broadcast. Lee, a sportscaster for 20 years, began his career calling games at Syracuse, his alma mater. He is fluent in English and Mandarin Chinese, according to his online resume. He did not respond to a request for comment on Twitter and has not been made available for comment.
As President Trump was about to address a rally, the decision quickly generated mocking Internet memes and derisive jokes, but it wasn’t one that the Asian American Journalists Association felt crossed a line. “Although AAJA understands this was a personnel decision to reassign ESPN announcer Robert Lee to another event, it is unfortunate that someone’s name, particularly a last name that is common among Asian Americans, can be a potential liability,” the organization said Wednesday in an email to The Post. “We do not, however, believe this decision was motivated by race.”
According to Sports Illustrated’s Richard Deitsch, another ESPN representative said the company did not “mandate Robert Lee change his assignment” and that Lee was “more comfortable” not doing it. Clay Travis of Outkick the Coverage broke the story.
White nationalists, neo-Nazis and Ku Klux Klan members clashed with counterprotesters in Charlottesville earlier this month during protests against the planned removal of a Robert E. Lee statue. A counterprotester, Heather Heyer, was killed and 19 others were injured when a man allegedly linked to neo-Nazi beliefs drove his car into a crowd, according to the authorities.
News of the unlikely coincidence — that Robert Lee would not, in fact, be coming to Charlottesville for a football game — gave social media users a rare chance to find glimmers of humor in an incident that sparked violence, a public affairs disaster at the White House and increasing calls to remove Confederate monuments nationwide.
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
Many people used ESPN’s decision to take aim at divisive sports commentators.
I wish Skip Bayless was named Robert Lee while he was at ESPN.
— Sopan Deb (@SopanDeb) August 23, 2017
In light of the ESPN Robert Lee fiasco, can we try to find a confederate general named Joe Buck?
— Dennis Walker (@DennisWalkerJr) August 23, 2017
I know I'm not the only hoping there was a Confederate general named Joe Buck.
— Sean Davis (@seanmdav) August 23, 2017
And yet Stephen Smith (Confederate commander of Company G, Arkansas 25th infantry) remains on the air! Outrageous!
— andysere (@andysere) August 23, 2017
God I hope there was a confederate general named Dick Vitale
— David Burge (@iowahawkblog) August 22, 2017
Of course, the Internet being the Internet, some criticized the decision based on perceptions of political correctness.
If you happen upon a civil war era Orrin Hatch in your reading do not be alarmed, that was also me. https://t.co/wmO0Cbo9pz
— Senator Hatch Office (@senorrinhatch) August 23, 2017
Nothing takes a stand against racism better than banning an Asian guy from a tv job because his name is Robert Lee.
— Dana Loesch (@DLoesch) August 23, 2017
— American Citizen (@lerae4428) August 23, 2017
Volner, the ESPN spokesman, said Lee will instead cover Youngstown State at Pittsburgh on Sept. 2 on the ACC Network Extra channel.
Robert E. Lee V, the great-great-grandson of Gen. Robert E. Lee, told The Post that none of his friends were concerned about the legacy of his name.
“To them I’m Rob Lee, and they could absolutely care less,” said Lee, the longtime boys’ athletic director at the Potomac School in McLean, Va.
He added that “when we named [my son] Robert E. Lee VI, we were doing it in recognition of my father and his father.”