Just one week after catching a ton of backlash for airing a fake fantasy football auction featuring black athletes, ESPN finds itself at the center of yet another controversy. And as many people have already noted, this one feels like something that was ripped straight off the satirical news site The Onion.
It seems that when ESPN first put together their broadcasting assignments for the start of the 2017-18 college football season, they assigned a young Asian-American broadcaster named Robert Lee to cover the University of Virginia’s home game against William & Mary in Charlottesville, Va. on Sept. 2. However, as first reported by Outkick the Coverage, The Worldwide Leader in Sports later made the decision, in conjunction with Lee, to switch his assignment to a different game. Reason being, the network and the broadcaster believed Lee’s name—which was obviously the name of a Confederate general—could potentially stir up strong feelings in people if he called a game in Charlottesville, a city that was besieged by white nationalists during a rally earlier this month.
In all likelihood, the fact that Lee was calling an under-the-radar college football game in Charlottesville at the beginning of September probably would have gone unnoticed if ESPN had allowed Lee’s assignment to stick. But rather than run the risk of either offending people or having Lee’s presence at the Virginia game turn into a memeworthy moment online, ESPN and Lee attempted to quietly switch his assignment to a different game in Pittsburgh on the weekend of Sept. 2.
They failed to keep the change quiet, though, with Outkick the Coverage eventually getting wind of it late Tuesday and reporting on it. That led to other websites and publications covering the story as well. And on Tuesday night, ESPN was forced to issue a statement confirming Outkick the Coverage’s original story and explaining why they chose to remove Lee from the Virginia game in the first place. This was their statement:
According to multiple reports, ESPN has adamantly denied pulling Lee from the game and has maintained that they gave Lee the option to work the game if he wanted to. But Lee reportedly told ESPN he would prefer working a different game, and ESPN granted his wish.
But despite that wrinkle in the story, there are a lot of people who are ripping ESPN at the moment and calling the network out for turning all of this into an issue in the first place. Lee’s name started trending on Twitter on Tuesday night and it’s still trending on Wednesday morning as the responses to ESPN and Lee’s decision continue to pour in. You can get a taste of what the reactions have been like below:
Longtime ESPN employee Bob Ley even chimed in on Tuesday night with a reaction of his own that pretty much sums up the entire situation:
Lee is yet to respond to the controversy he inadvertently helped cause when he agreed to pull himself off the Virginia game. But it’s safe to say ESPN’s approach to all of this backfired and is probably going to force Lee to speak on it at some point.