What on earth was ESPN thinking?
That was the collective reaction when the network made what seemed like an extremely silly programming decision to replace the play-by-play announcer on its coverage of the University of Virginia’s home opener on Sept. 2, simply because his name is Robert Lee, a rather common name made famous, of course, by the general of the Confederacy.
Never mind that ESPN’s Robert Lee is Asian American, that the Civil War ended 152 years ago and Robert E. Lee died in 1870. Caught in a tough spot, the network knew full well it would face an onslaught of memes, jokes and criticism if Lee worked a game that will fall three weeks after unrest stemming from a statue of the general claimed the life of Heather Heyer and injured 19 others in Charlottesville. Better to make the choice to change the broadcast now, it reasoned, and face a few hours of ridicule, much of it harsh. “ESPN did this out of fear of the yowling mob,” Commentary editor John Podhoretz tweeted, “and is part of it now.”
The decision, sources told multiple outlets, was left up to Lee and Sports Illustrated’s Richard Deitsch reports that Lee was “more comfortable” not doing the Virginia game. “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.”
An unnamed executive at the network emailed New York Magazine’s Yashar Ali to say that the network “raised with him the notion of switching games,” Ali wrote on Twitter. “Something we do all the time. We didn’t make him. We asked him. Eventually, we mutually agreed to switch.”
It was “no biggie,” Ali says the source added, “until someone leaked it to embarrass us and him. They got their way.”
Lee, who has not commented or been available, will instead broadcast a game in Pittsburgh for the ACC Network Extra channel, thereby avoiding the inevitable onslaught of Internet jokes and memes that would have resulted from his appearance in Charlotte that day. Because the reaction to the decision to remove Lee was “off the charts,” Ali said the source said, there was “reasonable proof that the meme/joke possibility was real.”
That much ESPN got right. The blowback was extreme from the moment Outkick the Coverage broke the story, using a headline with”MSESPN,” a dig at what it believes is the network’s bias. It remained so Wednesday morning, when #RobertLee was trending on Twitter.
So ESPN, which has struggled over the last year with massive layoffs that hit some of its biggest names and found itself at the epicenter of a debate about whether it is inherently conservative or liberal, came to what it deemed to be the lesser of two bad choices — and somehow made the poorer one. Now, the decision will be the topic of intense conversation for weeks to come. Good job, ESPN.
It was a turn of events that made for a surreal evening, even by the standards of the time in which we live, and one ESPN veteran couldn’t help but remark on it. Bob Ley — that’s right, Robert (A.) Ley — of the network’s “Outside the Lines” program, tweeted that he was “rather worried my employee ID/pass may not admit me” Wednesday morning. “Life, as scripted by @OnionSports.”
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