ESPN confirmed its decision Tuesday night to remove college football announcer Robert Lee from Virginia football’s home opening game against William & Mary on Saturday, Sept. 2. The game was slated to stream on ESPN’s digital ACC Network.
The decision follows the white supremacist events held in Charlottesville Aug. 11 and 12, which protested plans to remove the statue of Robert E. Lee from Emancipation Park and resulted in several deaths.
ESPN received widespread backlash from the decision, including tweets from Commentary editor John Podhoretz, ESPN anchor Bob Ley and even Virginia football alum and NFL player Chris Long, who tweeted, “Backfire indeed. Looks dumb,” in reference to the decision.
Outkick the Coverage broke the story Tuesday with the headline “MSESPN Pulls Asian Announcer Named Robert Lee Off U.Va. Game To Avoid Offending Idiots.” MSESPN is a nickname for ESPN that criticizes it for taking left-leaning political decisions and compares it to MSNBC.
ESPN later released an official statement detailing the decision to remove Lee, an Asian-American college football broadcaster, from the play-by-play duties.
“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,” the statement read. “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.”
Yashar Ali, a New York Magazine contributor, later tweeted out an email from an unnamed ESPN executive that expressed the sports network’s concern with Lee’s broadcast becoming an Internet joke.
“This wasn’t about offending anyone,” the email said. “It was about the reasonable possibility that because of his name he would 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.”
ESPN subsequently announced that Lee is now slated to cover the Youngstown State versus Pittsburgh game, which is also scheduled for Saturday, Sept. 2.