In the wake of the violence at the white supremacist rally in Charlottesville on Aug. 12, ESPN decided to pull announcer Robert Lee from Virginia's football season opening game. The network cited the "coincidence of [Lee's] name" resembling the Confederate general Robert E. Lee, whose statue Charlottesville was going to remove that sparked the rally in the first place.
The night before the rally, white supremacists marched through the University of Virginia campus carrying torches and chanting "white lives matter" and "blood and soil." The next day at the "Unite The Right" rally, a car plowed into a group of counter-protesters, killing Heather Heyer.
On Sept. 2, UVA will kick off the school year with a home game against William and Mary. While the ESPN announcer Lee (who is Asian) had no connection to Charlottesville whatsoever, the network has decided to move him off the game because of the coincidence of his name, and how triggering it could be for Virginia residents. Instead, Lee will be working the Youngstown versus Pitt game.
While this decision was reportedly intended to fly under the radar so as not to make a scene or imply political leanings, the conservative website Outkick The Coverage leaked the news on Tuesday night with the headline "MSESPN Pulls Asian Announcer Named Robert Lee Off UVA Game To Avoid Offending Idiots." Unfortunately for the network, OTC was not the only one to criticize the decision.
Unsurprisingly, Fox News and many conservative pundits have taken none so kindly to the decision. While appearing The Five the conservative commentator Greg Gutfeld claimed it "was like a story straight out of The Onion."
Others like NRA spokesperson Dana Loesch tweeted, "Nothing takes a stand against racism better than banning an Asian guy from a tv job because his name is Robert Lee."
But ESPN's decision sparked criticism across the political spectrum. "This is stupid. Sorry. Someone's PR team is way too sensitive," NBC News' Chuck Todd tweeted.
In a statement following the backlash, ESPN said:
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. 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.
Bustle reached out to ESPN for comment, but was unable to speak directly with anyone due to the high volume of queries. Instead, Bustle was referred to a statement sent to the New York Post on Tuesday night by SPN SVP Commuications, Chris LaPlaca.
"This wasn't about offending anyone. It was about the reasonable possibility that because of his name he would be subjected to memes and jokes and who knows what else. Think about it. Robert Lee comes down to do a game in Charlottesville. The reaction to our switching a young, anonymous play-by-play guy for a streamed ACC game is off the charts — reasonable proof that the meme/joke possibility was real," read the statement. "So, when the protests in Charlottesville were happening, we raised him the notion of switching games. Something we do all the time. We didn't make him. We didn't ask him, eventually we agreed to switch."
The unfortunate irony, of course, is their foresight became a self-fulfilling prophecy.