MULVIHILL: ESPN’s misassociation is a problem

Removing Robert Lee from commentating U.Va. football game was unnecessary and a mistake

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ESPN announcer Robert Lee 

Courtesy robertleepxp.wordpress.com | Cavalier Daily

In the wake of the recent alt-right rally in Charlottesville, which attracted hundreds of neo-Nazis and white supremacists, cities and organizations around the United States have begun taking steps to remove public monuments of Confederate soldiers. However, ESPN removed a “Lee” of their own from his assigned position. Robert Lee, an announcer for the network who was slated to cover the University’s home football opener, was reassigned to cover a different game “simply because of the coincidence of his name.” Though the network stated that at the that moment “it felt right to all parties,” ESPN’s pre-emptive public relations strike related to commentator Robert Lee was a mistake and created avoidable negative press for the organization.

First and foremost, the network stated that Lee agreed with the move because he did not want to become the subject of endless memes and tweets regarding his name and its connection to the tragedy in Charlottesville. Although this is certainly a valid concern, the decision to pull Lee created a large amount of social media outrage which may not have occurred had he remained in his position. Though nobody can predict what effect Lee’s name would have had on the social media cycle if he had remained in his position, ESPN failed at avoiding controversy. Instead, it created an immense amount of backlash from both sides of the political spectrum. By changing Lee’s assignment, the network effectively made everyone angry and the social media storm which Lee tried to avoid plagued him anyway.

Any blame ESPN may have incurred for allowing an experienced employee to cover a college sporting event would have been unfounded. The controversy in Charlottesville regarding the removal of the statue of Gen. Robert E. Lee from Emancipation park was related to his status as a Confederate general and the statue’s long held status as a symbol for white supremacists. The Robert Lee who must now deal with the backlash of ESPN’s decision is an Asian-American announcer working in a field dominated primarily by white reporters. The similarities between ESPN’s Robert Lee and Gen. Robert E. Lee begin and end with their names.

ESPN employs far more reporters, announcers and commentators who have angered audiences with inflammatory views. Stephen A. Smith, a commentator on ESPN’s First Take, has made numerous controversial statements on television. Most notably, in the wake of NFL player Ray Rice’s suspension for domestic violence issues, Smith condemned domestic violence but also stated that women should not provoke men into violent acts. Though Smith was suspended for his comments, he still remains employed by the network. ESPN is no stranger to controversy generated by its employees but this situation is different. Robert Lee was removed from his assignment not for his words but for his name. 

From a public relations standpoint, ESPN tried to avoid social media attention and backlash regarding the name of their announcer. Yet, they dug themselves into an even deeper hole. Although it is unclear as to whether the network received complaints about Lee’s potential involvement with the first home football game, Lee is of no relation to the Confederate general and should not have been forced by social pressures to leave his original assignment.

All media personalities worry about social media responses to their commentary. In a sound-bite world, any funny face or expression can be made into a “meme” to take the internet by storm. Although it is unfair that ESPN changed Robert Lee’s assignment, it is worse that the man had to worry about internet users associating him with the Confederate general. Lee should have been able to call the game without worrying about the crisis his given name could cause. Though “Robert Lee live from Charlottesville,” is a sound bite waiting to happen, ESPN’s employee is of no fault for the murder and destruction which took place during the Civil War and he should not have had to feel as though he would be lambasted for his given name.

Carly Mulvihill is the senior Opinion associate editor for The Cavalier Daily. She may be reached at c.mulvihill@cavalierdaily.com

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