When Your Name Isn’t Politically Correct: The Story of ESPN Journalist Robert Lee’s Reassignment

This absolutely has to be fake news. That was my immediate thought after I started to hear and see reports of ESPN’s decision to remove one of their sports announcers from a college football game all because of his name. I thought surely such an extreme example of political correctness gone mad would be even a bit much for them. No company would ever take things that far, would they?

Yes, a company would, and ESPN made a bad situation worse. An employee they were supposedly trying to protect was thrust into the highly intense media spotlight by their decision, forever connecting him to the ugly and painful incidents in Charlottesville, Virginia, this summer.

You’re probably familiar with the Robert Lee story by now, but the bigger issue really is one that won’t go away. It’s a sad statement on just how totally committed many in the culture are to looking good in the eyes of P.C. dictators, no matter how ridiculous or what it costs in the end. A sportscaster is going about the business of covering college games and other assignments when, all of a sudden, his P.C.-crazed bosses had what they thought was a brilliant idea to avoid embarrassment during a contentious time in our country — and all because his name happens to be, again, Robert Lee.

Shortly after the riots, Lee was assigned to cover the University of Virginia’s opening football game. The powers that be at ESPN realized this and apparently said, “We’ve got it.” Our viewers are just not smart or sophisticated enough to distinguish between the Asian-American reporter (yes, you read correctly) and the long-dead but very Caucasian Confederate General Robert E. Lee. So, let’s have him cover another game. No one will know we made the switch, and we can pat ourselves on the back for being so sensitive and in-touch.

The pats on the back were quickly interrupted, however, by the need to respond to the tsunami of complaints. While the incident happened weeks ago, ESPN probably is still getting inundated. And poor Robert Lee. Many of the stories that were plastered all over the country placed his picture side by side with the general, and to top it all off, ESPN claimed it was a mutual decision reached after discussion with their announcer.

“ESPN executives collectively made the decision with Robert to switch games as the tragic events in Charlottesville were unfolding. In that moment, it felt right to all parties,” the network said in a statement released Aug. 23.

With all due respect to Mr. Lee, I have been in broadcasting for more than 35 years. Regardless of a reporter’s experience, media honchos don’t go around asking for their input on major decisions, especially when it comes to matters they believe involve their company’s reputation. That is simply not the way the broadcast business works. Reporters — or “talent” — do what they’re told and go where they’re assigned, like it or not.

The fact that Robert Lee confirmed the official statement is no surprise. What is he expected to say if he wants to keep his job, given the fact that the controversy is bound to negatively impact his future? In the midst of the firestorm, ESPN insulted the public once again by basically saying people were overreacting. How’s that for projection? As Christians, our faith teaches us that we’re all going to have some pretty rough days on the playing field of life. We also understand that those fumbles don’t exactly do much to impact the final scoreboard unless you learn from those mistakes. So far, ESPN and their misguided management has yet to revisit their game plan.


This column first appeared on OSV Newsweekly. To read Teresa’s latest OSV columns click here.