You see a story like “ESPN pulls broadcaster Robert Lee off Virginia game because of his name,” and you’ve got to react, right? No way you let something as absurd as that pass. Take just a moment, though, and look at this from more than one angle.
I’ll admit it, I thought the story about Lee and the University of Virginia that broke Tuesday night was a troll job. Fake news, to coin a phrase. (Fake in the “non-factual” sense, of course, not “news I don’t like so I’ll call it fake.”) The story first appeared on Outkick the Coverage, which has a reputation for anti-ESPN provocation, and rocketed around the web. Political correctness? Civil War reverberations? Left-wing ESPN? Oversensitive liberals? Hell, the story sounded like it was built in a conservative-media lab.
Sure enough, though, it turned out to be true. Lee, a broadcaster who calls about a dozen ESPN college football and basketball games a year, per the New York Times, would be reassigned—and reassigned only because of his name.
You can react to the story however you wish, and chances are that most of you who read the headline aren’t even reading this; you’ve headed right on down to fire off your opinion in the comments below. But for the rest of us, there are three possibilities to consider here:
1. ESPN executives are bending the knee at the altar of political correctness, advancing their left-wing agenda by removing anything that might possibly offend aggrieved special-interest groups. This is the preferred argument of conservative publications, though it loses a bit of heft when you remember that ESPN didn’t actually announce or seek praise for this change.
2. ESPN is trying to spare Lee embarrassment or harassment. Yes, anyone named “Robert Lee” who gets within five states of the Mason-Dixon Line is in for a few jokes and jabs. And you can understand why ESPN might not want a young broadcaster to draw the abuse that spews out of Twitter. But unless Lee was planning to broadcast the game in full Confederate regalia, social media would’ve moved on in less than a quarter. Plus, best I can tell, there are no demands for people sharing the same monikers as Civil War generals to change their own names.
3. ESPN tried to avoid any possible offense, and in so doing ended up lighting its own feet on fire. Look, the tragedy in Charlottesville remains horrible beyond measure. And ESPN has demonstrated countless times that its journalists have the skill and sensitivity to put sports in their proper perspective relative to tragedy. This isn’t that. Very best-case—and most likely—scenario, this was a quick-fix personnel decision that backfired like starting a grill with lighter fluid (with, of course, the matches provided by people with an interest in making ESPN look bad).
As the story whipped around social media Tuesday night, cruising in the wake of the Kyrie Irving trade news, ESPN tried to contain the flames. “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,” ESPN said in a Tuesday evening statement. “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.”
We could nitpick the statement; saying Outkick the Coverage made Lee’s removal a story is the same rationale that the Trump administration uses to condemn leakers without condemning what they’ve leaked. But the PR spin isn’t the real issue here. The real issue is, there is no real issue.
Take a moment, first, to spare a thought for Lee. He’s the only guy in this entire story without blame. Yes, some names can turn unfortunate under people’s feet; Ravens broadcaster Gerry Sandusky has dealt with the burden of sharing a soundalike name with disgraced Penn State pedophile Jerry Sandusky. A writer named Jon Jones was reminded Tuesday night just how frustrating it is to share a name with a steroid-busted MMA fighter. Just hope that someone with your name doesn’t ever get caught doing something humiliating, infuriating or illegal.
But on the other hand—grow the hell up. The man’s name is his name. Adults can distinguish the difference between a sportscaster named “Robert Lee” and a statue of a long-dead Confederate general. (Hell, I live in Atlanta, and we don’t run anyone named “Sherman” out of town with torches.) Sensitivity to other views is good and useful—the lack of empathy among a huge swath of our society is an ugly stain on the American character—but bubble-wrapping reality does no one any good.
And let’s not let the gleeful “ESPN’s gone liberal” screamers off the hook here, either. The theory that ESPN’s alleged left-wing politics have cost it viewers holds the weight of gospel truth in Facebook comment sections, even though it has almost zero basis in reality. (Cord-cutting, astronomical rights fees and diverse entertainment options have far more bearing on ESPN’s ratings and financial difficulties.) This is a personnel decision, nothing more. Making it out to be some Ominous Symbol of Creeping Liberalism only makes tackling serious matters—economic chasms, climate change, heritage vs. hate, that kind of thing—that much tougher.
Treating viewers like children—whether by trying to avoid the slightest possible unintentional offense, or flinging partisan candy to stoke a sugar-rush of rage—is a true, insidious threat to America, not tiny slights like this. Bubbles like those—not statues, not coincidental names—are where the seeds of division and resentment have bloomed into fury in 2017.
Jay Busbee is a writer for Yahoo Sports and the author of EARNHARDT NATION, on sale now at Amazon or wherever books are sold. Contact him at email@example.com or find him on Twitter or on Facebook.
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