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ESPN this week was found to have removed a broadcaster from the University of Virginia football team’s season opener because of his name.
His name? Robert Lee.
The Virginia Cavaliers’ September 2 game against William & Mary, which Lee was set to broadcast, will be the first game in Charlottesville, Virginia, since the white nationalist rally was held there earlier this month to protest the city’s decision to remove a statue of Confederate Gen. Robert E. Lee.
ESPN was immediately slammed by conservative commentators for what they deemed political correctness gone awry, in part because Lee is Asian-American. ESPN defended the decision as an agreement between the company and the announcer designed to avoid the memes and jokes that could have been made at the expense at the announcer.
Clay Travis of the sports website Outkick the Coverage broke the news Tuesday in an article with the headline “MSESPN Pulls Asian Announcer Named Robert Lee Off UVa Game To Avoid Offending Idiots.” “MSESPN” is a reference to what critics view as ESPN’s liberal bias along the same lines of MSNBC.
ESPN released a statement explaining how the decision came about.
“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,” the statement said. “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.”
Another executive at ESPN went further, telling Yashar Ali of New York magazine that the move was made to avoid having a young announcer become the subject of memes, jokes, and “the potential zoo.”
“This wasn’t about offending anyone,” the anonymous executive said. “It was about the reasonable possibility that because of his name he would be subjected to memes and jokes and who knows what else.”
The executive added: “So, when the protests in Charlottesville were happening, we raised with him the notion of switching games, something we do all the time. We didn’t make him. We asked him. Eventually we mutually agreed to switch.”
The executive also said the reaction to the move showed that those fears were well founded.
“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,” he said.
Lee was reassigned to the Youngstown State-Pittsburgh game.
“No politically correct efforts,” the executive said. “No race issues. Just trying to be supportive of a young guy who felt it best to avoid the potential zoo.”