A decision that a broadcaster who shares a name with a Confederate general should not call a Virginia game in Charlottesville has been met with criticism.
The latest episode of the culture wars to wash into sports, and the news media that cover it, was prompted (unintentionally) by a broadcaster named Robert Lee. His employer, ESPN, announced Tuesday night that the name he shares with the Confederate general made him a poor choice for calling a University of Virginia football game in Charlottesville, where a recent protest over the removal of a statue of Robert E. Lee left a woman dead and became part of the national dialogue.
It was a story tailor-made for America’s present hyper-polarized, kinetic and more than slightly absurd moment, and it has left one inescapable conclusion: However many times sports media outlets — and chiefly the biggest of them all, ESPN — are implored to “stick to sports,” the centripetal force of politics is bound to make a battlefield of almost anything.
ESPN made the decision with Lee, the company said in a statement Tuesday night, “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,” the statement said. “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 such an issue.”
The news was first reported Tuesday by Clay Travis, a Fox Sports contributor and editor of the website Outkick the Coverage, who has led a robust chorus of criticism of ESPN for what some perceive as liberal bias. Numerous conservative outlets, including Fox News, have covered the Lee story extensively.
Specifically, Travis reported that ESPN wished to “avoid offending” some viewers. In its statement, as well as in background discussions with reporters, ESPN denied that avoiding offense was a motivation.
ESPN’s president, John Skipper, reiterated that point on Wednesday in a statement posted on the company’s internal website that was provided to The New York Times.
“There was never any concern — by anyone, at any level — that Robert Lee’s name would offend anyone watching the Charlottesville game,” Skipper said in the statement. “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.”
He added that Lee was offered the chance to broadcast a different game on the same day opted for that. “I’m disappointed that the good intentions of our Charlotte colleagues have been intentionally hijacked by someone with a personal agenda,” Skipper wrote, apparently referring to Travis, “and sincerely appreciate Robert’s personal input and professionalism throughout this episode.”
ESPN did not make Lee available for comment.
Travis’s report seemed to provide new fodder for those who accuse ESPN of liberal bias, a charge leveled this year after the network laid off dozens of employees. While that move was made for business considerations, it nonetheless provided a forum for longstanding complaints over ESPN’s perceived slant.
It seemed unlikely that Lee’s broadcasting of the Cavaliers’ season opener on Sept. 2 against lower-tier William and Mary, to be streamed over the internet via the ESPN-owned A.C.C. Network, would have resulted in much more than a few mischievous internet memes and Twitter jokes.
James Andrew Miller, who co-wrote a history of ESPN and has contributed to The New York Times, said the Lee decision ESPN indicated that ESPN wants “to be as far away from geopolitical and cultural issues as they can be.”
“If they could build a biosphere where all that stuff is out of the equation, they would,” Miller said.
Instead, conservatives found new ballast while liberals bemoaned what they characterized as a silly pre-emptive capitulation to unlikely or marginal offense.
Compounding matters, Lee is Asian-American. The Asian American Journalists Association said in a statement that “it is unfortunate that someone’s name, particularly a last name that is common among Asian-Americans, can be a potential liability.”
Patrick Miller, a political scientist at the University of Kansas, said the episode arguably provided more proof that the United States’ present political climate is unusually tribal, with two opposing sides in greater and more extravagant disagreement than is historically typical.
“There’s a big divide on the parties when it comes to regions and racial attitudes, which taps into the debate around Confederate symbols,” Miller said. “Republicans today believe whites and Christians are far more discriminated against than other groups, whereas Democrats think the opposite, and the same goes for conservatives and liberals.”
While Miller said his research concerned political elections rather than debates over sports culture, he saw how it could apply to the ESPN situation. He also disclosed that he is a Virginia native who graduated from William and Mary.
“I can understand what ESPN is thinking, given the context: two Virginia schools, one of them U.Va., where Confederate symbolism was at the core of what happened there,” he said. “Maybe just to avoid the headline and touching on people’s feelings.”
But a day later it seemed clear that ESPN had blundered by overestimating its ability to keep its and Lee’s decision quiet and underestimating the reaction once it became public.
Notably, Travis said in a blog post that the news has been leaked to him “by multiple Outkick fans inside ESPN.”
“Turns out people in Bristol are not all children of Bernie Sanders,” James Andrew Miller said, referring to ESPN’s Connecticut headquarters. “There’s actually some conservative voices there, and they’re starting to push back more and more, because they don’t like their company being associated with the liberal agenda.”
Now, Miller added, ESPN must “decide whose opinion they care about.”