ESPN reportedly decided to remove an Asian-American college sportscaster from covering an upcoming University of Virginia football game simply because his name is Robert Lee, a namesake of a Confederate general during the Civil War.
According to the Washington Times, the decision came in the wake of the recent violence in Charlottesville, Virginia, which had White nationalists and neo-Nazis protesting against the removal of Confederate statues, including that of Robert E. Lee.
In a statement, ESPN said Lee was transferred to do commentary for a different game “simply because of the coincidence of his name.”
An EPSN executive told USA Today that the network asked Lee if it would be easier for him to announce at a different game but offered him the option to stay. The sportscaster wanted to switch assignments, and ESPN approved.
Dave Weekley will be taking over the William & Mary-Virginia game scheduled on September 2, while Lee has been reassigned to cover a game between Youngstown State and Pittsburgh, which takes place on the same day.
Incidentally, Lee, who has been a sports commentator since 1999, is Asian-American, and did not join ESPN as a commentator until 2016.
“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,” read an ESPN statement posted on the Outkick the Coverage. “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.”
Outkick the Coverage blogger Clay Travis, who first broke the story, lamented:
“Is there anything more pathetic than ESPN believing people would be offended by an Asian guy named Robert Lee sharing a name with Robert E. Lee and calling a football game? Aside from some hysterical photoshops and Internet memes which would make everyone with a functional brain laugh — Robert E. Lee pulling out all the stops to stay in Charlottesville now! — what was the big fear here? Does ESPN really believe people are this dumb or that having an Asian announcer named Robert Lee is too offensive for the average TV viewer to handle?”
ESPN’s move has been widely criticized on social media as completely unnecessary and ridiculous, especially that it could even be interpreted as racially motivated due to Lee’s ethnicity.
There’s no way ESPN pulled an Asian commentator from a broadcast because his name is Robert Lee, right? There’s no way this can be true.
— Josh Jordan (@NumbersMuncher) August 23, 2017
Robert Lee is an Asian broadcaster for ESPN. He got pulled from UVA game because his name might offend people…. this is real life people.
— Lisa Horne (@LisaHorne) August 23, 2017
In an era of rampant stupidity, ESPN taking an Asian announcer named Robert Lee off a Virginia football game may be the dumbest idea ever.
— Mike Vaccaro (@MikeVacc) August 23, 2017
Hey @ESPN: Nice try, but the memes aren’t mocking Robert Lee or his name. They’re mocking YOUR stupidity and cowardice.
— ✌NotLeebuddie (@lizbuddie) August 23, 2017
So @espn pulled an announcer off coverage because his name was Robert Lee.
Robert Lee is an Asian American with no ties to the confederacy
— Charlie Kirk (@charliekirk11) August 23, 2017
Li/Lee/Ly is 2nd most common Asian surname. 100 mill people all over the world have it. @ESPN is crazy racist to pull Asian-Am Robert Lee
— IPledgeAllegiance (@muchmoresalt) August 23, 2017
— Ken Webster Jr (@ProducerKen) August 23, 2017
Lee has yet to comment on the furore.