The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

ESPN didn’t avoid a controversy by reassigning announcer Robert Lee. It started one.

A game at Virginia's Scott Stadium played on Oct. 29. (Ryan M. Kelly/AP)

The level of interest in University of Virginia football is, to put it gently, pretty low. The Cavaliers posted a 2-10 record last season and are projected to finish last in their division this fall.

On a typical game day in Charlottesville, there are more than 20,000 empty seats at Scott Stadium.

These are probably some of the reasons that Virginia's home opener Sept. 2 isn't even televised but rather is relegated to an online channel called ACC Network Extra, which viewers can access on the ESPN app.

Here's where I'm going: Hardly anyone would have noticed or cared if the play-by-play announcer for Virginia vs. William & Mary was a guy who happens to be named Robert Lee — you know, like the Confederate general whose statue in Charlottesville became a rallying point for white supremacists this month.

Yet ESPN felt compelled to reassign Lee to avoid a controversy that almost certainly would not have materialized. In making the move, ESPN created an actual controversy, practically inviting conservatives to accuse the network of catering to snowflakes.

“Fox & Friends” was all over the story Wednesday.

“You've got to be kidding me!” Brian Kilmeade exclaimed, after co-host Steve Doocy read news of the decision by “very politically correct” ESPN. “The fact that his name is Robert Lee? You had to move him out to Youngstown, Ohio, because you thought it would inflame the people of Charlottesville? What an insult it is to the people of Charlottesville or those people protesting on either side that you think an Asian American's name, Robert Lee, would set people off because, minus the ‘E,’ it reminds you of a Confederate general.”

“If you watched the game and you heard the announcer call himself Robert Lee, would you even think anything of it?” Ainsley Earhardt chimed in.

Others who have called out ESPN include counselor to the president Kellyanne Conway, National Rifle Association spokeswoman Dana Loesch, former Arkansas governor Mike Huckabee and Country Music Hall of Famer Charlie Daniels.

“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,” ESPN spokesman Derek Volner 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,” he said.

The irony is that it probably would not have become a topic of conversation had ESPN just left Lee on the game.