In an increasingly polarized America, the sports giant ESPN has pulled off a highly improbable feat: simultaneously angering both conservatives and progressives—albeit for different reasons.
The saga has its origins in the events of the weekend of Aug. 12, with the now-infamous “Unite the Right” rally to protest the planned removal of a statue of Confederate general Robert E. Lee from a public park in Charlottesville, Virginia.
Organized by far-right hardliners, white nationalists, and neo-Nazis, the march devolved into a public brawl on Aug. 13 as fights broke out between rally participants—many of whom were heavily armed—and counter-protestors who had come to decry racism, anti-semitism, and xenophobia. That afternoon, 32-year-old Heather Heyer was killed and at least 19 were injured after a car that police say was driven by a white nationalist plowed into a sea of demonstrators.
As the country reeled from the dark turn of events, ESPN executives were discussing whether to allow an up-and-coming commentator, Robert Lee, to stay assigned to an upcoming University of Virginia football game, “simply because of the coincidence of his name,” the network said.
“We collectively made the decision with Robert to switch games as the tragic events in Charlottesville were unfolding,” ESPN said in a statement last night (Aug.23). “In that moment it felt right to all parties.”
Reporter Yashar Ali tweeted a statement from an unnamed ESPN executive who said the network’s decision “wasn’t about offending anyone. It was about the reasonable possibility that because of his name he would be subjected to memes and jokes and who knows what else.”
The now-public move backfired spectacularly, and ESPN has found itself directly in the outrage crosshairs from the left—who see the decision as both nonsensical and racially insensitive—and the right—who point to the decision as yet another example of PC culture gone too far.
Should ESPN stand by its decision, Lee is slated to call the Youngstown vs. University of Pittsburgh game, which also takes place on Sept. 2, the same day as the UVA opener in Charlottesville against William & Mary.