ESPN pulled an Asian-American announcer named Robert Lee from a broadcast over concerns that Lee would be the subject of online memes, a network executive said in a statement.
Clay Travis at Outkick The Coverage first reported that ESPN switched Lee from covering the college football game between William and Mary and the University of Virginia because Lee’s name is too similar to the Confederate general Robert E. Lee. Charlottesville, Virginia, where UVA is located, has been at the epicenter of the national political discussion after a white nationalist rally there devolved into violence between Antifa and white nationalists.
In an emailed statement to New York Magazine’s Yashar Ali, an ESPN executive claimed the network was concerned that Internet users could turn Lee’s name into online memes.
“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,” wrote the unnamed executive, who claimed the negative coverage of ESPN’s decision is “reasonable proof that the meme/joke possibility was real.”
The executive also claimed that ESPN didn’t “make” Lee switch games. “We asked him,” the executive said. “Eventually we mutually agreed to switch.”
ESPN previously confirmed the decision to pull Lee from the game in a statement to Outkick The Coverage.
“We collectively made the decision with Robert to switch games as the tragic events in Charlottesville were unfolding, simply because of the coincidence of his name,” the statement read. “In that moment it felt right to all parties. It’s a shame that this is even a topic of conversation and we regret that who calls play by play for a football game has become an issue.”