Robert Lee is a person. He began broadcasting games 20 years ago at Syracuse, his alma mater. He is an Asian-American fluent in Mandarin Chinese, per his resume. He called Siena sporting events for 17 years and joined ESPN last year, calling games on ESPNU and ESPN3, while maintaining a career in a separate profession.
Robert Lee is also a vessel. A thing to be used to push an agenda or build a personal brand. A shiny object to steer until hopping onto the next one.
ESPN’s decision to move the play-by-play man off the Virginia vs. William & Mary football game on Sept. 2 because of his name has zero real-world impact for anyone except Lee himself. Why, then, is it making national news and engendering hot takes from coast to coast?
Because it’s the perfect storm with the perfect weatherman.
Clay Travis, whose personal animus toward ESPN is well-known, was the first to report with the headline “MSESPN Pulls Asian Announcer Named Robert Lee Off UVa Game To Avoid Offending Idiots.” The left-center, Bristol-based network doing something easily spun into PC culture run amok was manna from the heavens for Travis, a skilled provocateur.
Within a few hours of publication, he was on Fox News, pushing the usual talking points with Tucker Carlson providing Tucker Carlson face. The Lee story spread like wildfire, engulfing any humanity that once existed.
And I’ll be perfectly blunt here. I do not begrudge Travis for his scoop and resulting notoriety here. That he and others don’t want to see Lee as a human being is not surprising. Nor is it surprising that the squeakiest, most inflammatory heel gets the clicks and attention.
What is surprising — and perhaps reflects a quaint naivety on my behalf — is how dirty this whole thing seems from 30,000 feet. The human element has been all but erased from the equation.
Lee has not released a statement. ESPN, however, says the decision to move Lee to another game was reached collectively. An unidentified network executive provided additional context to freelance writer Yashar Ali. The email presents an alternate explanation for ESPN’s motivation.
If this is to be believed, part of the network’s calculus in first raising the concern was helping Lee avoid a potentially awkward situation. Part of the thinking was to help Lee, the person. That’s a good thing — but it led to a terrible decision.
Moving Lee from the Virginia game was, ultimately, a self-inflicted wound by ESPN. Part of being an executive in 2017 is looking at potential problems from six different angles and worldviews in an attempt to identify controversy. In this case, someone noted Lee’s name was similar to the Confederate general and the game was being played in Charlottesville, put two and two together, and raised the issue.
The aim was to avoid internet memes from those who also made the connection. This 6-D public relations chess, in my opinion, was playing a viewer at home who simply does not exist. Even in today’s climate, it’s difficult to imagine someone watching an ESPN3 feed, assembling the puzzle, and putting in the work to make a meme.
ESPN dealt with a potential fly with a very real bazooka and is now dealing with the injury. It’s possible to feel some sympathy for trying to help Lee and also think the decision to approach Lee was patently ridiculous. One would be hard-pressed to find someone rushing to the network’s defense here.
But let’s be clear. There is one victim in this situation and it’s Lee. Whether you believe he is an unfair casualty of PC culture, or think he’s being used by the right to push an agenda, his feelings should be of paramount importance.
He is a person, not a political football. That’s why it’s so frustrating to see him placed in a no-win situation and watch him get caught up in the madness.
Consider Travis’ report. Including the headline, Travis references Lee’s Asian heritage eight times. Eight. Was mentioning Lee is of Asian descent eight times necessary to his report or was it done out of another motivation?
Lee’s relatively insignificant assignment change is a piece of red meat to dangle in front of conservative thinkers willing to bite back at those on the other side of the aisle. ESPN, well aware of the narrative suggesting their too liberal, foolishly served it up, bun and all to Travis, who gladly took a bite. He is the winner in this while his ESPN-labeled punching bag takes another hit.
But the true loser — through no fault of his own — is Lee. Already facing an uphill battle as a minority in sports broadcasting, he must now figure out how to navigate overnight celebrity and notoriety. He must do and say the right things with both his own interest — and his employer’s — in mind.
Don’t forget that Lee was a person long before he became a jumping-off point. He’s still a person today. Here’s hoping he comes out of this better and capitalizes on the moment. The human thing to do would be to root for him, not use him as a pawn to advance an agenda.
But, hey, to each their own.