By now you’ve seen the news and shaken your damn head over the idiocy: ESPN switched broadcaster Robert Lee (this guy) off of calling the University of Virginia’s home opener, because the violent white supremacy rally in Charlottesville earlier this month was spurred by threats to remove a statue of Robert E. Lee (this guy).
Or, more specifically, ESPN was afraid that someone might notice Lee was calling the game, and then ... what? That part—the exact outcome ESPN was trying to avoid—is painfully unclear.
Here’s the statement:
As USA Today noted after speaking with an ESPN spokesperson, the network “feared Robert Lee, a young, new play-by-play announcer assigned to the Virginia-William & Mary game on opening weekend would show up in Twitter memes and posts on Web sites like Awful Announcing or Deadspin.” And in our own phone conversation, a very animated ESPN spokesperson repeatedly emphasized to us that the decision was mutual—that the network approached Lee, asked him how he felt about it, that neither side felt particularly strongly about it either way, and that he was ultimately moved to a different game.
That can be interpreted a few different ways, but even in the flack’s version, it was ESPN that first decided Lee calling a game in Charlottesville could be a potential issue; it was ESPN that initially approached Lee about it; and it was ESPN that switched broadcast teams even though Lee didn’t feel that it would be an issue.
This is dumb. As. Shit. Afraid this might “show up ... on Deadspin,” were they? What would have been nothing but a quirky screengrab (or more likely nothing—no one was going to notice, and even if they did they wouldn’t have cared, and even if they pretended to care it would have been forgotten by kickoff) is now a full-blown media controversy in the right-wing chudosphere, and ESPN finds itself rightly criticized by everyone on all sides of the political spectrum.
Which is ironic in its way, because this decision is as apolitical as decisions get. ESPN is not liberal, and it’s not conservative; it’s a massive company with no political beliefs beyond damage control. Someone had the idea of switching Lee off the UVa game not because they thought it would be offensive, but because of the prospect of some hypothetical viewer being offended by seeing an Asian-American broadcaster with a hyper-common name similar to that of the Confederate general. Whether this hypothetical viewer exists or not (they don’t) is almost beside the point; true corporate cowardice requires a bland, compulsive aversion to controversy so strong that it loses touch with reality. And as so often happens, the blowback winds up being much, much worse than the nonexistent scenario ESPN hoped to avoid.
I think ESPN deserves all the scorn it’s going to receive. This decision, at whatever level it was made, betrays total contempt for and condescension toward the movement against Confederate monuments. This decision is that of someone who can’t possibly begin to grasp what the movement is actually about, or why so many people are offended and willing to march in the streets. It’s the decision of someone who doesn’t have a strong opinion about Confederate monuments, but wants to put on a show of understanding that some do.
This type of performative leftism is red meat for, among others, the disingenuous right, whose worldview (and ability to sell gold and boner pills to old people) collapses unless it can portray all activism as performative. This story is going to be in the news for days to come, and long after will be ammunition for idiots and racists seeking to denigrate the sincerity of protestors and those who support them. Nice work, ESPN: You did more harm to this cause than even you thought you were capable of.