Did you hear that ESPN has reassigned this weekend’s college football games because an announcer named Robert Lee was going to broadcast the University of Virginia game from Charlottesville, Va.?
Of course you have. It’s been reported everywhere. And ESPN has gotten plenty of internet grief for the decision today, ranging from mockery to outrage.
This is actually a pretty good decision by ESPN. Think about it: Would you want to walk through that town with the name Robert Lee right now? Nothing good can come of it.
And ESPN knows exactly what they would see on Saturday afternoon once Lee introduced himself on camera: Screenshots of the game announcers, their names highlighted on the chyron underneath, with snarky tweets and Instagram posts shared far and wide. Old pictures of General Robert E. Lee would be photoshopped into the announcers’ booth.
There would be another element, too: Instead of taking criticism for being overly cautious, they would catch hell for being insensitive.
Instead, ESPN moved him to another game. They apparently tried to do so quietly, though the decision was leaked – and the internet’s enthusiastic dog pile shows that yes, people will pay attention to announcing assignments. The current situation is the worst case scenario for the option ESPN chose. The alternative worst case scenario – Lee and the network being raked over the coals for latent racism and insensitivity – seems worse.
Given how horribly ESPN has whiffed on America’s move to streaming video so far, this represents a savvy understanding of modern media. (Way to make it to 2011, ESPN.)
But the outrage is unwarranted. ESPN probably didn’t hurt Lee in making this decision (and the current story out of Bristol is that the decision was mutual, anyway). It’s sort of funny, worth a little needling, maybe a late night monologue joke or two, and that’s it. ESPN shows its share of bias in its programming and reporting, but this is not an example.
Robert Lee becomes the big winner in this whole situation though: This weekend he goes to Pittsburgh (a great city with a real college football tradition) instead of being forced to watch three hours of a slap fight between Virginia and William and Mary over who gets to claim Thomas Jefferson for the next year. (Spoiler: No one cares.)
Come to think of it, this may be the first time someone named Robert Lee went to Pennsylvania and came out ahead.