On 23 August 2017, the hashtag #RobertLee trended on Twitter due to widely social posted rumors holding that an ESPN announcer named Robert Lee had been “fired” by the sports network because he shared a name with the prominent Confederate general, and his presence on television might therefore be “offen[sive]” to “idiots”:
ESPN just fired sports caster because his name is Robert lee. And he is Asian and this is not a joke @FoxNews
— 🌺stacy trumpet 🌺 (@tice_stacy) August 23, 2017
Everyone, this is Robert Lee. He was fired. For being Robert Lee.🤔🤔 pic.twitter.com/YyeBaR5PQY
— Shaka the GIF Goat (@thegifgoat) August 23, 2017
ESPN is a failed network. NEVER watch biased and idiotic ESPN.
Fired a broadcaster named Robert Lee because his name is..
— James Green (@AZboer) August 23, 2017
A popular take published by Fox News didn’t say Lee was fired from ESPN, but their report accused the sports channel of having a “liberal bias” in keeping with their choosing to eassign him away from announcing a University of Virginia football game in Charlottesville “simply because of the coincidence of his name”:
In the wake of the events in Charlottesville, Va., ESPN decided to pull one of its announcers from calling a University of Virginia football game — because his name is Robert Lee.
Lee, an Asian-American sportscaster who started with the network in 2016, was moved to a different game “simply because of the coincidence of his name,” ESPN said, referencing the Confederate general Robert E. Lee.
On [12 August 2017], violence broke out at a protest from a white-nationalist group opposing the removal of a Robert E. Lee statue in Charlottesville. A driver ultimately rammed his car into a crowd of counter-protesters, killing one woman and injuring more than a dozen other people, police said.
ESPN, which has faced accusations of liberal bias that some observers believe has led to a downtick in viewership, said it moved its announcer to the Youngstown State game at Pittsburgh.
The game in question was the University of Virginia’s (U.Va.) 2 September 2017 home opener, and the controversy over Lee’s work assignment apparently began with a 22 August 2017 blog post on Outkick the Coverage, which stated that ESPN “pulled” the broadcaster over a fear of “offending idiots” (and, which seemingly uninadvertently, hit upon the precise reasons ESPN likely made the call to move Lee off the game — not over fear of “offending” viewers, but to spare Lee [and the network] from being relentlessly mocked online):
MSESPN Pulls Asian Announcer Named Robert Lee Off UVa Game To Avoid Offending Idiots
In a story that seems made for The Onion, but is actually true, according to multiple Outkick fans inside ESPN MSESPN decided to pull an Asian college football announcer named Robert Lee off the William and Mary at University of Virginia college football game because they were concerned that having an ASIAN FOOTBALL ANNOUNCER NAMED ROBERT LEE would be offensive to some viewers.
Did I mention that Robert Lee is Asian?
To avoid offending left wing idiots Robert Lee, the Asian college football announcer, not the Confederate General who died in 1870 and shares a name with him, was switched to the Youngstown State at Pittsburgh game and Dave Weekley will now call the William and Mary at University of Virginia game.
But, seriously, 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? … But just to make it clear for everyone out there, the Asian man on the right is not long deceased Confederate General Robert E. Lee. He’s a different person entirely, one that is still alive and did not fight in the Civil War.
A Washington Post article on the issue reported that Lee and ESPN had “collectively” come to the decision to reassign the former from the U.Va. game earlier in the month, while “tragic events” had been taking place at that campus:
The living Robert Lee, an ESPN broadcaster, was pulled from calling the University of Virginia home opener against William and Mary on Sept. 2 because he shares a name with the Confederate general at the center of unrest in Charlottesville.
“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,” Derek Volner, an ESPN spokesman, told The Washington Post in an emailed statement.
“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,” he said.
Reporter Yashar Ali shared a response he received from an ESPN executive in response to the brouhaha, which echoed the suggestion that the network’s intent had been motivated by their trying to spare one of their announcers from a predictable onslaught of online ridicule, rather than over their bowing to pressures associated with “political correctness” or “race”:
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 to town 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.
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. Eventually we mutually agreed to switch.
No biggie until someone leaked it to embarrass us and him. They got their way.
That’s what happened.
No politically correct efforts. No race issues. Just trying to be supportive of a young guy who felt it best to avoid the potential zoo.
ESPN president John Skipper elaborated on the decision in a separate statement:
Given the amount of media attention being generated by one of the countless, routine decisions our local production teams make every day, I wanted to make sure you have the facts. There was never any concern — by anyone, at any level — that Robert Lee’s name would offend anyone watching the Charlottesville game.
Among our Charlotte production staff there was a question as to whether — in these divisive times — Robert’s assignment might create a distraction, or even worse, expose him to social hectoring and trolling. Since Robert was their primary concern, they consulted with him directly. He expressed some personal trepidation about the assignment and, when offered the chance to do the Youngstown State/Pitt game instead, opted for that game — in part because he lives in Albany and would be able to get home to his family on Saturday evening.
I’m disappointed that the good intentions of our Charlotte colleagues have been intentionally hijacked by someone with a personal agenda, and sincerely appreciate Robert’s personal input and professionalism throughout this episode
As the hashtag #RobertLee dominated Twitter, reporter Ben Axelrod of WKYC observed that the backlash against ESPN’s decision demonstrated the network was indeed in a no-win situation regarding Robert Lee — either subject themselves and their announcer to becoming targets of derision, or reassign Lee and stand accused of pandering to “idiots” who might take “offense” at his name:
The people criticizing ESPN today are the same ones who would’ve been mocking them on Twitter once they saw the screenshots. Tough spot.
— Ben Axelrod (@BenAxelrod) August 23, 2017
There is no dispute that Robert Lee was moved off covering a University of Virginia football game for ESPN because of the coincidence of his name. However, ESPN’s intent appeared to have been a desire to avoid prompting public ridicule rather than public offense — a move that ended up subjecting the network (for different reasons) to the very mocking they had hoped to head off.