For Pete's Sake

‘This wasn’t about offending anyone:’ ESPN on Robert Lee not calling game in Charlottesville

The statue of Confederate Army Gen. Robert E. Lee in Charlottesville, Va.,
The statue of Confederate Army Gen. Robert E. Lee in Charlottesville, Va., The Associated Press

ESPN says its decision to move announcer Robert Lee from Virginia’s football game against William and Mary on Sept. 2 because of his name was not about offending anyone.

There was an uproar on Tuesday night when word got out that Lee wouldn’t be working the game as scheduled in Charlottesville, Va., the site of the protests by white nationalists about the removal of a statue of Confederate general Robert E. Lee.

A counterprotester, Heather Heyer, was killed and others were injured when a man drove a car into a crowd.

ESPN did not help itself by telling the Washington Post that it made the decision to remove Lee from the game “because of the coincidence of his name.”

“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 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.”

That did not sit well with some people. Many on Twitter deemed the move discriminatory against an Asian-American. Others criticized ESPN and “liberals” for what they implied was a knee-jerk reaction borne of political correctness. Still others pointed out that, by trying to preemptively avoid outrage by pulling Lee from the game, ESPN created it instead.

An ESPN executive later wrote to Yashar Ali of New York Magazine and said that the network never worried about offending people.

Ali tweeted this message from the unnamed executive:

“This wasn’t about offending anyone. It was about the reasonable possibility that because of his name he wold 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 him. Eventually we mutually agreed to switch.

“No biggie until someone leaked it to embarrass us and him. They got their way.

“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.”

Lee has not made a public comment.

The surname ‘Lee’ was the 21st most common name in the country according to the 2010 U.S. Census.

‘Jackson’ — the surname of Stonewall, a Confederate general whose name has also been raised in connection with the removal of statues — was the 19th most common surname.

Pete Grathoff: 816-234-4330, @pgrathoff