We are now at the phase where the debate over Confederate statues has reached sports — but this time, it’s in a pretty dumb way.
In the newest controversy, ESPN is under fire for pulling an Asian-American announcer from a September 2 University of Virginia football game because his name is Robert Lee — which is similar to the name of the Civil War general who fought to dismantle the United States and maintain slavery. ESPN said it pulled Lee “simply because of the coincidence of his name.”
A couple weeks ago, a group of neo-Nazis, Ku Klux Klan members, and other white supremacists marched onto the University of Virginia campus in Charlottesville — to, purportedly, protest the removal of the statue of Robert E. Lee, the general, from a local park. The protests, along with President Donald Trump’s remarks drawing a false equivalency between the white supremacist protesters and counterprotesters, have once again put the spotlight on the battle over whether Confederate symbols should remain up in public spaces.
While all this was happening, ESPN said it brought the idea to Lee, the announcer, of switching games. He agreed, apparently to “avoid the potential zoo” that could come out of the game (which won’t be televised, but it will be streamed).
Just received this email from an ESPN executive re the Robert Lee controversy. pic.twitter.com/OuBORlWO9f— Yashar Ali (@yashar) August 23, 2017
Conservative media in particular did not approve of the move. As Brian Stelter reported at CNN, “Two of the primetime shows on Fox News mocked ESPN for the decision. A banner on screen called it ‘pathetic.’”
Barry Petchesky at Deadspin, a left-leaning sports blog, also criticized the move in a post titled “Welp, ESPN Shot Itself In The Dick”:
I think ESPN deserves all the scorn it’s going to receive. This decision, at whatever level it was made, betrays total contempt for and condescension toward the movement against Confederate monuments. This decision is that of someone who can’t possibly begin to grasp what the movement is actually about, or why so many people are offended and willing to march in the streets. It’s the decision of someone who doesn’t have a strong opinion about Confederate monuments, but wants to put on a show of understanding that some do.
This type of performative leftism is red meat for, among others, the disingenuous right, whose worldview and ability to sell gold and boner pills to old people collapses unless it can portray all activism as performative. This story is going to be in the news for days to come, and long after will be ammunition for idiots and racists seeking to denigrate the sincerity of protestors and those who support them. Nice work, ESPN: You did more harm to this cause than even you thought you were capable of.
So far, though, ESPN has stuck to its decision.
For more on the battle over Confederate statues, read Vox’s explainer.