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ESPN’s decision to move Robert Lee from the Virginia broadcast shouldn’t be a story

It’s a lose-lose situation for the sports meganetwork.

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NCAA Football: Louisville at Virginia Geoff Burke-USA TODAY Sports

On Tuesday, news broke that ESPN had taken play-by-play commentator Robert Lee off the Virginia - William & Mary broadcast, and moved him over to the Pittsburgh - Youngstown State game instead. It raised quite a hubbub on Twitter, on how ESPN is taking a non-story and making a big deal of it, and how “liberal” “political correctness” has officially jumped the shark.

I agree that this is a non-story, but I disagree that we should be throwing ESPN to the wolves here.

A USA Today article late Tuesday night reported that, according to an ESPN executive, “ESPN asked Lee if he would be more comfortable calling another game but gave him the option to stay. Lee chose to switch assignments, and ESPN accommodated him.“

According to another email statement reportedly from an ESPN executive, the network and Lee had “mutually agreed” to switch.

Since this news first came out, there’s been a lot of criticism on how ESPN has handled this entire non-situation situation. But this isn’t ESPN’s fault. I’m actually entirely OK with ESPN’s decision.

Why did ESPN make such a big deal about it?

They didn’t. They didn’t issue a press release, and they didn’t issue any initial statement. All ESPN did was make a decision to try to avoid controversy, and it backfired. According to the above USA Today piece, “it was leaked to Clay Travis of Outkick the Coverage, who frequently critiques ESPN and has accused the company of having a liberal bias.” Even after it was published, they didn’t release any story; they just responded to press inquiries.

Why would you pull a commentator just because of his name?

It’s important to note that Lee wasn’t pulled off the air. He switched assignments. He’s now covering Pittsburgh - Youngstown State, which is at the very worst a lateral assignment. Reasonable minds can differ, but UVA-W&M is not exactly Florida State - Alabama. This likely wasn’t his “big moment.”

Why move him at all?

According to ESPN, they were trying to avoid him being subjected to ridicule because of his name. Over the past two weeks, Charlottesville has been subjected to more pain and physical and mental anguish than any one city deserves, stemming from the “Unite the Right” rally around taking down the Robert E. Lee statue.

Lee is a fairly junior ESPN play-by-play broadcaster, having been with the company for about a year, according to his LinkedIn profile. Maybe he doesn’t want to be remembered in one of his first FBS games for all the dumbest reasons.

Those criticizing ESPN say that no one would have taken notice at all if they didn’t make the move. But raise your hand if you believe that? As is common practice, both schools release game notes in the week prior to the game, listing television and radio commentators for both play-by-play and analyst. You’re telling me that some Twitter vigilante or social media funnyman wouldn’t take a screenshot (either of the game notes or the beginning of the broadcast) and seize the opportunity to crack a joke or criticize ESPN for being insensitive? If that’s really the argument here, well that’s fine — I also remember my first day on the Internet.

Robert Lee is Asian. Robert E. Lee is a dead confederate general.

These are two very accurate statements. Good job.

I don’t view this as a racial or racist decision. I’ll readily admit that I might be missing something entirely here, but removing him because his name matches up with that of Robert E. Lee’s seems to have nothing to do with race. Yes, he is Asian. And according to LinkedIn, he’s a Syracuse alum. But this is as much discrimination against Syracuse alumni as it is discrimination against Asians. In other words, this is a red herring.

Similarly, there are a lot of people posting pictures of Commentator Lee next to Dead General Lee, with some really clever insight about how these two look nothing alike.

ESPN isn’t saying they’re afraid of people confusing the two. They’re being sensitive to the fact that people are going to take a football game commentator and make a big stink about how ironic it is that, after all this protest and counter-protest, “Robert Lee” has come back to Charlottesville after all. They were hoping to quietly avoid the situation, but of course the Twitterati wouldn’t let that happen.

Here’s the TL;DR: ESPN didn’t make a story out of this. The internet did. They’re not saying Lee is incapable of broadcasting. Race has nothing to do with this. From ESPN’s view, they weren’t being overdramatic, they were just making a sensible decision that Lee also agreed with.

Lee will still be calling a game next Saturday. It’s at least as good as calling a Virginia game, except that he’s stuck in Pittsburgh instead of beautiful Charlottesville. Anyone trying to make this anything more than that is trying to create content where content isn’t there.