Ideological mishegas: ESPN removes Asian-American commentator named Robert Lee

The television sports network ESPN has been accused before of injecting ideology into its sports coverage. I can’t speak to that, as I neither follow the network nor am a big sports fan. But its latest move, one that can’t be seen as anything other than boneheaded, was to reassign an announcer scheduled to cover a football game livestreamed by ESPN on its digital network.

The game was between the University of Virginia and my own alma mater, The College of William and Mary. U. Va. is located in Charlottesville, where, as you know, violence recently erupted over the planned removal of a statue of Confederate army commander Robert E. Lee.

The name of the broadcaster originally scheduled to cover the game is Robert Lee. He’s Asian American, and was recently promoted at ESPN.

As CNN reports, ESPN “embarrassed itself” by “trying to avoid an embarrassing ordeal”—removing Lee from the broadcast and reassigning him to another livsteamed game, one between Youngstown State and Pitt, two Pennsylvania colleges.

CNN:

The website Outkick the Coverage broke the story — with a headline invoking a popular conservative nickname for ESPN, “MSESPN,” which derides the network as the sports equivalent of the liberal talk shows on MSNBC.

The headline said, “MSESPN Pulls Asian Announcer Named Robert Lee Off UVa Game To Avoid Offending Idiots.” The story was so popular that the site’s servers were overloaded on Tuesday evening.

ESPN subsequently said in a statement that its executives “collectively made the decision with Robert to switch games as the tragic events in Charlottesville were unfolding.”

“In that moment it felt right to all parties,” the network 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 an issue.”

From ESPN’s perspective, the executives were trying to guard against Lee becoming a punchline, given that he shares a name with a Confederate general.

They foresaw memes and headlines “Robert Lee marches into Charlottesville.” Moving Lee to a different game was seen as a way to support him.

Few people defended ESPN’s decision: after all, the announcer’s name is “Robert Lee” and nobody in the U.S. calls the general “Robert Lee”—it’s always “Robert E. Lee.” Here’s the difference:

This is ridiculous, a gross overreaction that ESPN could have avoided simply by leaving Lee to broadcast the game as scheduled. Perhaps there would have been a few comments or jokes, but we can’t go walking on eggshells because an Asian-American is named “Robert Lee.”

Subsequently, as reported by PuffHo, ESPN “clarified” their decision, saying it wasn’t to avoid offending people or to be politically correct, but simply to protect Lee himself (who could of course have asked to be reassigned) from “social hectoring and trolling”.  Here’s the spin given by ESPN after they were already mocked for their decision.

I’m pretty sure that what happened here was that Lee expressed “trepidation” only after ESPN confronted him with the issue—and perhaps spun it to him that he could be vilified on social media. And, as a rising person at the network, of course he’d take the assignment change urged on him by the network. Huffpo notes:

“We mutually agreed to switch,” an executive at the sports channel told HuffPost contributor Yashar Ali in a statement, referring to Lee. “No biggie until someone leaked it to embarrass us and got their way.”

I wonder whether there was any coercion about the “switch”. And even if there wasn’t, Robert Lee should never have been made a pawn in a political game.

Or, I suppose, ESPN could “suggest” that he change his first name.

52 Comments

  1. Mark Reaume
    Posted August 24, 2017 at 1:45 pm | Permalink

    We are starting to see similar over reactions up here in Canada. Apparently the union representing Ontario’s public elementary school teachers wants the name of Canada’s first prime minister (John A. Macdonald) to be removed from schools in the province because of what it calls Macdonald’s role as the “architect of genocide against Indigenous Peoples.”

  2. Stephen Barnard
    Posted August 24, 2017 at 1:47 pm | Permalink

    He could change his name to, say, Adoph Hilter.

    * Not a misspelling

    • Posted August 24, 2017 at 1:53 pm | Permalink

      There’s an ice hockey player called Miroslav Satan. Worse still, he’s a ‘right winger’. How long before that position is deemed problematic?

      There are worse names in sport. How the hell did Misty Hymen, Chubby Cox and Rusty Kuntz make it through high school?

      http://bleacherreport.com/articles/615829-50-sports-names-that-make-us-giggle

      • Posted August 24, 2017 at 1:56 pm | Permalink

        One more: Ron Tugnutt.

      • DW
        Posted August 24, 2017 at 2:21 pm | Permalink

        I’ll just leave this here….

      • Bob Barber
        Posted August 25, 2017 at 10:15 am | Permalink

        Chuck Knowlauch’s last name is German for garlic.

        • Bob Barber
          Posted August 25, 2017 at 10:16 am | Permalink

          Knoblauch – I hate typos.

    • Craw
      Posted August 24, 2017 at 1:56 pm | Permalink

      The member for Minehead?

    • Stephen Barnard
      Posted August 24, 2017 at 2:00 pm | Permalink

      • gravelinspector-Aidan
        Posted August 24, 2017 at 2:38 pm | Permalink

        05:25 : “I am NOT … a racist. . . . . but.”

    • gravelinspector-Aidan
      Posted August 24, 2017 at 2:29 pm | Permalink

      Beat me to it!

    • Ken Kukec
      Posted August 24, 2017 at 3:34 pm | Permalink

      There was a criminal case back in the 1940s, or so I’ve heard, involving a defendant whose unfortunate last name actually was “Hitler.” Before trial, he petitioned the court for a name change, so as not to be prejudiced before the jury. The judge was amenable to the idea and asked if he had a new name in mind. Replied the accused:

      “Eleanor Roosevelt.”

  3. Craw
    Posted August 24, 2017 at 1:52 pm | Permalink

    Reuters called them doppelgangers.

  4. J.Baldwin
    Posted August 24, 2017 at 1:55 pm | Permalink

    Or, I suppose, ESPN could “suggest” that he change his first name.

    May I suggest, “D504”

  5. David Duncan
    Posted August 24, 2017 at 1:57 pm | Permalink

    Ideological purity trumps all.

    (They could have called the commentator Bob Lee.)

  6. Posted August 24, 2017 at 1:58 pm | Permalink

    Couldn’t they have just called him Rob?

    • Craw
      Posted August 24, 2017 at 2:16 pm | Permalink

      The crazy is doing anything in the first place.

  7. Randy schenck
    Posted August 24, 2017 at 2:27 pm | Permalink

    Saw the report on this the other day but thought it so strange it can’t be serious. ESPN will now be changing the names of all it’s announcers, not to mention we have no idea who they are now.

    On another note – just watched another Space X Falcon 9 rocket blast off from Vandenberg over at Space.com. Went very smooth, including the first stage coming back down and landing on a drone ship. Amazing stuff.

  8. Posted August 24, 2017 at 2:35 pm | Permalink

    I don’t see any reason to think they are dissembling. In the current state of social media, terminally infested as it is with hateful idiocy and histrionics from all sides, I think if I were in Mr Lee’s shoes, I might also opt for a different sports commentating assignment, if for no other reason than avoiding all the stupidity. The moronic blowback that they feared might not even have occurred to me unless someone pointed it out. Something similar may have happened to Mr. Lee.

    The irony is that it is that very stupidity which then made this an issue when the “story”* broke. I suggest that ESPN and Mr. Lee could not have escaped, no matter what they did.

    *I have a hard time calling this nonsense that.

  9. Posted August 24, 2017 at 2:50 pm | Permalink

    Would anyone on any side be turning this into a political football if the guy’s name were Robert Bin Laden, and it was decided not to have him broadcast the NY Jets game on 9/11, or would their be almost universal agreement that it was the right move because no one wants to be reminded of that event when they are trying to enjoy a football game.

    I know I don’t want to be reminded of the events in charlottesville every time I hear his name, or see the graphic on the screen. I watch sports to escape reality.

    • Posted August 24, 2017 at 2:52 pm | Permalink

      *there

    • Taz
      Posted August 24, 2017 at 3:18 pm | Permalink

      I know I don’t want to be reminded of the events in charlottesville every time I hear his name

      Why would you be? No matter what the particulars of this decision, it’s basically catering to oversensitive idiots – something the media needs to stop doing.

      • Posted August 24, 2017 at 6:18 pm | Permalink

        “it’s basically catering to oversensitive idiots – something the media needs to stop doing.”

        Do you honestly think people who are bothered by being reminded of the murder of heather heyer during a sporting event are “oversensitive idiots”? If so I think you’ve just broken the Da Roolz! because I’m one of them.

        • Taz
          Posted August 24, 2017 at 7:38 pm | Permalink

          I apologize for the word “idiot”. But yes, I think people who are bothered because a football announcer says is name is Robert Lee are being oversensitive. And that’s the situation we’re talking about.

          • Posted August 24, 2017 at 9:34 pm | Permalink

            “But yes, I think people who are bothered because a football announcer says is name is Robert Lee are being oversensitive.”

            Well I disagree, and I particularly disagree if the person bothered is a person of color, or a jew. And I think switching the guy to a different assignment for a week, with his agreement, is a very minor concession to hurt feelings.
            This might be a different situation if there had been some huge uproar, or threats of boycotts, or the guys assignment was switched against his will, and espn was bucking into pressure when doing this. But that wasn’t the case.

            • Craw
              Posted August 25, 2017 at 8:07 am | Permalink

              And there it is, the Hierarchy of Victimhood.

              If the reporter’s name is such a horror, why should it be inflicted on viewers of the other game?

    • Posted August 24, 2017 at 4:00 pm | Permalink

      You think somebody should be shuffled off onto another job because their name is vaguely similar to someone who died a hundred and fifty years ago?

      Lee is the most common surname for Chinese and Korean Americans and the second-most-common surname for Asian and Pacific Islanders, so explain to me why banning them from TV isn’t just plain racist.

      • Craw
        Posted August 24, 2017 at 4:06 pm | Permalink

        And what about Nasi Goreng? Let the menu purging begin!

      • Posted August 24, 2017 at 6:12 pm | Permalink

        “You think somebody should be shuffled off onto another job because their name is vaguely similar to someone who died a hundred and fifty years ago?”

        No, what I think is it’s not unreasonable to change a guys (whose job is entertainment) assignment for a week (with his agreement) when his assignment is in a city where his name could be a reminder of a woman who was murdered 2 weeks ago.

      • infiniteimprobabilit
        Posted August 25, 2017 at 3:01 am | Permalink

        It’s not in any way racist, his ethnicity didn’t come into it. If the guy had been as white as Robert E Lee, (or an African-American), the considerations re his name would have been precisely the same.

        And he wasn’t being ‘banned’ from TV, he was moved to cover another game.

        cr

    • Posted August 25, 2017 at 10:57 am | Permalink

      “Would anyone on any side be turning this into a political football if the guy’s name were Robert Bin Laden, and it was decided not to have him broadcast the NY Jets game on 9/11.”

      Yes, absolutely, 100%. It would be absolutely appalling for an announcer to be treated differently purely due to coincidence of his name, whether that be Lee or Bin Laden. Furthermore, I would say that anyone who would be offended by a Robert Bin Laden announcing a Jets game on 9/11 is someone whose opinions is not at all worth respecting. The actions of one Osama Bin Laden doesn’t and CANNOT tarnish the name of any other Bin Laden (or Osama, for that matter), as it was one particular Osama Bin Laden who committed acts of terror, not all Bin Ladens.

      It’s as absurd as saying that the USA shouldn’t have someone as president who shares a name with a genocidal dictator of Iraq.

  10. Heather Hastie
    Posted August 24, 2017 at 3:02 pm | Permalink

    I thought this was an Onion story or they were exaggerating something when I first heard it on Fox News. I couldn’t believe it could be true as reported. But their reporting was completely accurate. Sometimes no embroidery is needed we’ve got to such a ridiculous reality.

    • Craw
      Posted August 24, 2017 at 3:10 pm | Permalink

      “We have achieved the Woke Singularity” — David Burge

  11. Posted August 24, 2017 at 3:09 pm | Permalink

    Another “great American Eclipse”.. is this a sport, how to outdo the stupefied?
    the shadow is gone, pass it on.

  12. Posted August 24, 2017 at 3:09 pm | Permalink

    Another “great American Eclipse”.. is this a sport, how to outdo the stupefied?
    the shadow is gone, pass it on.

  13. Craw
    Posted August 24, 2017 at 3:12 pm | Permalink

    Trump is laughing. When he calls the people who do this kind of stuff “weak, weak people” he’s right. And they make the left look beyond ridiculous.

    • Ken Kukec
      Posted August 24, 2017 at 10:16 pm | Permalink

      That’s the great thing about Trump: he’s so transparently obvious. What he says almost always means its opposite: When he says “honestly,” he’s invariably lying. Whatever follows his ubiquitous “believe me”s, can’t be (believed). When he says “excuse me,” he isn’t being polite; he’s interrupting. What he calls “big league,” belongs in the bushes.

      When he calls something “tremendous,” it generally sucks. What he describes as “failing,” is almost always succeeding. And when he calls others “weak,” he demonstrates weakness of his own.

  14. eric
    Posted August 24, 2017 at 8:15 pm | Permalink

    I wonder whether there was any coercion about the “switch”.

    Any time your boss asks you to do something, there is a power imbalance that carries at least some minimum amount of coercion. After all, she’s your boss. She decides your next raise and realistically that will be based in part on how much you do for the company, whether you go ‘above and beyond the call of duty’ so to speak.

    Hopefully Lee has a good boss. Hopefully his answer was along the lines of of “yes, but I want…in exchange.” And hopefully he got it. Other than that scenario, I can’t really imagine this was a mutual decision.

  15. Leigh
    Posted August 24, 2017 at 8:19 pm | Permalink

    Many children are stuck with names they abhor because of their parents misguided attempts to memorialize the heroes (so alleged) of the “War of Northern Aggression.” I went to school with several such people. As children they couldn’t do much about the name, but many altered their name when they became adults.

    I realize that is not the case here, but names do matter. I think ESPN was probably in a no-win situation. If the original announcer remained, ESPN would probably be twitted for insensitivity. I really can’t fault their decision, especially since the employee has not suffered any damage — announcing one game or another — what’s the difference.

    • infiniteimprobabilit
      Posted August 25, 2017 at 2:55 am | Permalink

      I agree. Either way, they couldn’t win.

      And it’s a bit like an unsuccessful joke – the more you have to explain it, the unfunnier it gets.

      cr

  16. Posted August 24, 2017 at 11:53 pm | Permalink

    HOW STUPID!!!

  17. jimbo
    Posted August 25, 2017 at 6:32 am | Permalink

    Not sure that it necessarily changes anything much, but I had read somewhere that there had been anonymous death threats made against Lee. I think that’s at least worth mentioning.

    • jimbo
      Posted August 25, 2017 at 6:41 am | Permalink

      Actually, I’ve spent 10 minutes Googling and scouring the internet for corroboration and can’t find anything — so I guess it wasn’t worth mentioning after all… My apologies!

  18. Posted August 25, 2017 at 6:52 am | Permalink

    A goy from east London writes: I had a thorough grounding in Yiddish vocabulary as a kid (I got to three of my friends’ bar mitzvah parties, and would have appreciated them even more had I been old enough to enjoy the bars, and to two of the synagogue services). So I was delighted to see the word in the headline. The variant I know is meshuga https://en.oxforddictionaries.com/definition/meshuga

  19. Posted August 25, 2017 at 8:10 am | Permalink

    This seems to have been blown out of proportion. Even Charles Murray thinks ESPN did the right thing. A summary I saw on Twitter put it like this (paraphrasing): “Hey Robert, you wanna do a different game so you don’t get memed into oblivion on Twitter?” “Yeah, good idea.” “OK, done.”

  20. Posted August 25, 2017 at 10:29 am | Permalink

    Anyone who knows anything about foreign names and language knows that the original Asian form of “LEE” is actually Li before it is
    transcribed into English and is pronounced like Lee. I am surprised no one knew this.

    • Craw
      Posted August 25, 2017 at 12:11 pm | Permalink

      So, in the original Chinese characters it is latin L latin i, and only after transcription it is latin L, latin e, latin e?

  21. Posted August 25, 2017 at 11:54 am | Permalink

    My dad’s ENT doctor was Kok-Suk Lee. Probably no relation…

  22. David Coxill
    Posted August 25, 2017 at 2:52 pm | Permalink

    Some rightit wingnuts have been gloating about this on some sites .

  23. Tom Clark
    Posted August 26, 2017 at 11:33 am | Permalink

    Although this is not specifically related, here is a link to a post by Andrew Bacevich in the “American Conservative.” He’s a great writer and he has credibility on this issue.
    http://www.theamericanconservative.com/articles/robert-e-lee-at-west-point/

  24. Posted August 29, 2017 at 12:10 pm | Permalink

    I understand the guy was moved for just one game.


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