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Don't Look Now, But ESPN Just Did Something Sensible

Yes, pulling Asian-American broadcaster Robert Lee from a football game in Charlottesville actually made sense.

There was recently quite an online kerfuffle – when isn’t there? – over ESPN’s decision to pull play-by-play announcer Robert Lee from the University of Virginia’s football game because his name is Robert Lee. Since you haven’t been under a rock for the past two weeks, you know why that would have been weird, and since you’ve been on the Internet, you know why the move would generate a reaction, particularly given that Robert Lee the broadcaster is an Asian-American man being pulled off a job site.


An email from an ESPN executive to New York Magazine’s Yashar Ali clarified things a bit.

This 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. 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. … No politically correct efforts. No race issues. Just trying to be supportive of a young guy who felt it best to avoid the potential zoo.

Pretty much. There was a decent chance for there to be some reaction no matter what ESPN did. Getting it out of the way now instead of letting it really eclipse Lee’s work – and he’ll do another game – was totally appropriate, which is a positive step forward in a short time after ESPN had to apologize for broadcasting a fantasy football segment that had the appearance of a modern take on a slave auction.

Even so, not everyone is satisfied. Deadspin’s reaction, the morning after ESPN’s explanation, was titled, “Welp, ESPN Shot Itself In the Dick,” which raises its own questions about the personhood of corporations, but that’s for another time. What’s zany about it is the assertion that Robert Lee broadcasting a game at Virginia “would have been nothing but a quirky screengrab (or more likely nothing—no one was going to notice, and even if they did they wouldn’t have cared, and even if they pretended to care it would have been forgotten by kickoff).”

This is a painfully oblivious analysis of how Deadspin itself, and the Internet on a larger scale, work. Yes, there’s a significant chance that it all would have amounted to nothing beyond a quirky screengrab had ESPN sent Lee to Virginia. But what Deadspin and many other sites do with quirky screengrabs is find a whole bunch of them, see which ones go viral, then develop content off of those. The chances of “Here’s Robert Lee, live from Charlottesville!” becoming one of those viral ones would have to be seen as pretty decent – not a guarantee, but enough of a chance to think about avoiding it. Because ESPN made the switch now, it will be forgotten by kickoff, for sure.

All of this could be a non-issue of Robert Lee went by Bob, but then, Bob Ley has been a fixture at ESPN since 1979. Sometimes there’s just no way to win.


THE COLOR OF MONEY: Of all the reactions to the blockbuster trade between the Celtics and Cavaliers that sent Kyrie Irving to Boston, the funniest belonged to Justin Spears, a writer for Pac-12 DieHards and the Tucson Star. It does require one bit of background knowledge, that Irving has professed to be a flat-earther.

For the other side of things, we turn to ESPN’s Darren Rovell, who managed to find the single least interesting angle on a league-rocking trade:

First of all, green is a great color, and plenty popular among, you know, Celtics fans, who are the group of people most likely to be stocking up on new Irving gear. Second, in what way could it possibly matter, in 2017, what city a well-known NBA player is in, from the standpoint of marketing? LeBron James plays in Cleveland, for goodness sakes. The best players are known all around the globe (sorry, Kyrie) and the best teams get followed copiously through national television broadcasts and the Internet. Conversely, consider baseball, where the best player in the sport, Mike Trout, plays in the country’s second-biggest media market – granted, in Anaheim and not Los Angeles proper – and hardly anyone cares.

The business angle to the trade is that Irving goes from Cleveland, which is now adding uniform patches for Goodyear – the maker of Run Flat Tires – to Boston, where the jersey sponsor is General Electric, whose enterprises include a segment called GE Global Research. It’s a roundabout way to get to that joke, but, hey, so is the planet.



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