ESPN announced to media outlets yesterday (August 22) that, after witnessing the White supremacist “Unite the Right” rally devolve into racist violence two weekends ago, the network would remove broadcaster Robert Lee—who is Asian American—from announcing a September 2 football game between the University of Virginia (UVA) and William & Mary University.
“Unite the Right’s” first chapter unfolded the night of August 11, when tiki torch-wielding White hate group members gathered on the Charlottesville, Virginia university’s campus. The White supremacists specifically came to Charlottesville to protest the city’s upcoming removal of a monument to Confederate General Robert E. Lee. ESPN cited the deadly rally and the general’s similarity to the name of the broadcaster in a statement to Deadline and other outlets:
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.
The New York Times reports that Lee will instead announce the University of Pittsburgh football team’s September 2 game against Youngstown State University.
ESPN might not have ever mentioned the decision had OutkickTheCoverage.com not broken it last night with an article titled, “MSESPN Pulls Asian Announcer Named Robert Lee Off UVa Game To Avoid Offending Idiots.” The article, whose headline incorporates a play on ESPN and MSNBC’s acronyms that conservative commentators use to accuse both networks of liberal bias, cites “multiple Outkick fans inside ESPN” for providing the information. The website credits the article to founder Clay Travis, who The Tennessean reported lost a Jack Daniel’s promotional deal last year after criticizing Vanderbilt University’s removal of “Confederate” from the name of a building on campus. CNN reports that Travis’ report overloaded OutkickTheCoverage.com’s servers last night.
Deadline reports that Lee’s name became a Twitter trending topic as primarily right-wing critics echoed Travis’ accusation that ESPN ceded to political correctness and ultimately courted the controversy they wanted to avoid. New York magazine journalist Yashar Ali tweeted the following letter from an anonymous ESPN executive that rejects this criticism and instead says it was about Lee’s safety:
Just received this email from an ESPN executive re the Robert Lee controversy. pic.twitter.com/OuBORlWO9f
— Yashar Ali (@yashar) August 23, 2017
Lee has not publicly commented about the issue as of press time.