Robert Lee debacle is reminder of ESPN's larger problem

When ESPN made an internal decision to switch a part-time announcer named Robert Lee off of calling an upcoming Sept. 2 University of Virginia football game on ESPN3, it thought the move would be a “non-issue.”

That’s according to a source at ESPN, who tells Yahoo Finance, “We have a million college football games, we move people around all the time, a producer discussed this with him, it was a mundane decision.”

That sounds reasonable. ESPN anticipated (likely correctly) that the Internet would have a field day with mocking tweets (perhaps not all of them in jest), about the fact that a man named Robert Lee was calling the season opener in Charlottesville, Va., weeks after the violent rally there that was prompted by the planned removal of a statue of General Robert E Lee. It was a question of optics.

But then an ESPN employee leaked the decision to Clay Travis, a Fox Sports commentator and the most prominent ESPN critic on the Internet.

Tucker Carlson and Clay Travis

On Tuesday evening, Travis tweeted about the decision, and by Tuesday night he was on Tucker Carlson’s Fox News show, calling it “a sign of how ridiculous and absurd society has become” and “an indictment of ESPN in general.”

In a statement to the press, ESPN said, “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. 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.”

It’s a shame, yes, but it is ESPN’s reality, and has been for a couple years now, as the noise around ESPN’s supposed liberal politics has grown louder. Critics of the sports network point to past events like awarding Caitlyn Jenner the Arthur Ashe courage prize in 2015, and holding a town hall on race relations with President Obama last year, as evidence of a liberal agenda.

The narrative isn’t accurate. And as SportsCenter anchor Jemele Hill said on stage at a sports panel in June, “The athletes are dragging us here. I didn’t ask Colin Kaepernick to kneel. He did it on his own. So, was I supposed to act like he didn’t?” The executives overseeing ESPN’s programming believe that political stories involving athletes fall under reasonable sports coverage—but by covering it, the network gets accused of bias.

Robert Lee (Image: YouTube / Robert Lee)

This is the new normal for a wide range of businesses now, not just ESPN. In 2017, nothing is apolitical. Look no further than the exodus of CEOs from a President Trump manufacturing council last week in the wake of his response to the Charlottesville rally.

In the current political climate, even seemingly innocuous consumer brands, like Tic Tac, Tiki torches, and Skittles, must issue political statements.

The CEO of Campbells did not step down from the council until after consumers flooded social media with angry tweets about Campbells soup; the CEO of Under Armour stepped down from the council after taking months of criticism for a single sound bite praising Trump on CNBC back in February.

And for ESPN it is a business issue as well. The network has seen its subscriptions fall for the past three years — spurred by cord-cutting and the ongoing fragmentation of cable and rising programming fees, yes, but also, if Clay Travis, Fox, Breitbart, and some very vocal sports fans on social media are to be believed, because it has “gone liberal.

Whether or not you think removing Lee from the broadcast was a mistake, it doesn’t matter now. These days, everything ESPN does is fodder for political-based criticism. It finds itself in a lose-lose situation. And just as big corporations increasingly must take sides on political issues, there is no longer really an option for ESPN to “stick to sports.”

Daniel Roberts is the sports business writer at Yahoo Finance. Follow him on Twitter at @readDanwrite.

Read more:

SportsCenter chief on ESPN’s politics: ‘Imagine Jackie Robinson happened today’

SportsCenter anchor Jemele Hill on ESPN’s politics: ‘The athletes are dragging us here’

Inside ESPN’s plan to reinvent SportsCenter

ESPN will cut 100 on-air personalities today

Inside the ugly breakup of Sports Illustrated, The Cauldron, and Chat Sports