Tuesday, August 29, 2017

Oh, THAT Robert Lee

By weekday, Robert Lee is the channel partner manager for a payroll services company. You can find him at the top of the LinkedIn heap – which contains 5,000+ other Robert Lees – if you know enough to put the name “Syracuse” in there. Then, when the right Robert Lee surfaces, you know it’s him because, in addition to his day job, his résumé lists his part-time gigs as a play-by-play announcer, doing some college football on ESPN and a lot of things for Siena College.

For all intents and purposes, Robert Lee’s résumé is that of someone who has been able to do what he likes and wants to be doing – announcing sporting events – while also making a living. He graduated from Syracuse with a degree in broadcast journalism, but didn’t turn out to be Bob Costa. But Robert Lee gets to keep his hand in, balancing his ideal job (I believe passion is the current word of art) with the real world requirement that grownups pay their bills. And sometimes that means working for a payroll services company.

He sounds like a practical kind of guy, and my hat’s off to him.

So I feel a bit sorry that he’s found himself embroiled in the latest PC fiasco to draw our attention (and draw our attention away from where the real battle lines should be drawn).

As it happened, Robert Lee was scheduled to broadcast an upcoming football game between the University of Virginia and William & Mary. Now, I don’t believe that UVA is some big football powerhouse, but they do play in quasi-big-deal athletic conference that includes Virginia Tech and Miami of Florida. William & Mary does not come to mind when one thinks big-time college football. Their conference rivals include Elon and Stony Brook. UVA and W&M are both in Virginia, and are both pretty highly regarded schools. But their football rivalry is not exactly Michigan vs. Ohio State, or Texas vs. Oklahoma. I don’t imagine a lot of people, other than a handful of alums and assorted other college football junkies, would have been tuning into their game. The game was being broadcast over the Internet, for crying out loud.

But the folks at ESPN put the name “Robert Lee” together with “University of Virginia” and thought that maybe it wasn’t such a good idea to have Robert Lee announce the game, even if Robert Lee wasn’t planning on showing up wearing a grey uniform with gold buttons, sporting a silver beard, and riding a steed named Traveller.

ESPN was not, in fact, worried about having any viewers offended by having a Robert Lee associated with UVA. Their prime concern was that, given the recent events in Charlottesville attending the alt-right rally that was nominally to protect and defend a statue of Robert E. Lee (but we all know was really so that a bunch of weenie, tiki-torch and gun-sporting neo-Nazis could march around chanting racist slogans), their Robert Lee (not to be confused with The Gallant Old South’s Robert E. Lee) might be in for a ration of twitter shit. When ESPN asked Robert Lee the announcer, not the general, whether he’d rather do another low-end game that weekend, he said sure. Here’s what ESPN president John Skipper had to say. (And how’s Skipper for a great name for someone at the helm of a sports network?)

“There was never any concern — by anyone, at any level — that Robert Lee’s name would offend anyone watching the Charlottesville game,” Skipper said in the statement. “Among our Charlotte production staff there was a question as to whether — in these divisive times — Robert’s assignment might create a distraction, or even worse, expose him to social hectoring and trolling.” He added that Lee was offered the chance to broadcast a different game on the same day and opted for that. (Source: NY Times)

Nonetheless, a part time Fox sports contributor who believes that ESPN has a liberal bias decided to make this an example of liberal PC run amok, and we were off to the races.

Other than Game of the Week when the Red Sox are playing, I don’t watch much ESPN, so I don’t know whether they have a liberal bias. (Not that I’d recognize it as such.) But I guess because they talk about social issues – gender (Caitlyn Jenner), race (Colin Kaepernick), and sexual identity (Michael Sam, the gay football player) – rather than sticking to the X’s and O’s, they’re perceived as having a liberal bent. Being headquartered in Connecticut probably doesn’t help. Nor does the fact that they fired baseball commentator Curt Schilling for shooting off his mouth about something. 

Whatever the political or apolitical atmosphere at ESPN these days, it does seem sort of ridiculous that they’d be worried about an employee being hectored and trolled while announcing a game that so few people were even watching. I suspect that Robert Lee might have been the subject of a few harmless tweets, but that would have been about it.

Unfortunately, the Fox guy chose to make a big deal out of a big nothing, claiming (falsely, as it turned out) that ESPN had pulled Robert Lee to avoid offending any delicate sensibilities. So now everyone who follows the wide world of American sports knows that someone named Robert Lee is no longer going to announce a University of Virginia game. Making the incident, if not Robert Lee personally, the subject of hectoring and trolling beyond anything that would have occurred if ESPN hadn’t somewhat dopily stepped in and asked Robert Lee if he might not prefer to be deployed elsewhere that weekend. Which, as it turned out, he did.

Twitter being twitter, once the Fox guy got in the act, the heavens opened and the tweet storms rained down.

The best tweet I saw was this one:

I know I'm not the only hoping there was a Confederate general named Joe Buck. 10:25 PM - Aug 22, 2017 91 460 1,196 Sean Davis @seanmdav

For those who never watch baseball on ESPN, Joe Buck does baseball games of the week, and playoff games. Like many Red Sox fans, I can’t stand him, so I enjoyed this take on the brouhaha.

Anyway, my hope is that Robert Lee can continue to do what he loves. And that maybe even he can attract enough notice that he ends up making a professional step up and gets to be a full-time broadcaster (if that’s what he’s looking for). Maybe it’s too PC of me to even notice, but God knows there aren’t a ton of Asian Americans in the broadcast booths. The only one I can think of is former pro (and St. John’s High of Shrewsbury) baseball pitcher Ron Darling, whose mother is Hawaiian-Chinese (just looked him up on wiki, so that’s how I know).

Meanwhile, here’s hoping that all the Robert Lees out there – just think, more than 5,000 on LinkedIn alone – aren’t being hassled. I’m pretty sure that the Robert E. Lee I know isn’t being bothered. That would be my mailman, Robert Emmett Lee. Nothing to do with the Confederacy. His parents are Irish immigrants, and he was named after the Irish (not white) nationalist Robert Emmett, and goes by Bobby. Great mailman, by the way…

Other than that, I’ll be rooting for the underdog on the UVA vs. William & Mary card, with or without Robert Lee in the booth.

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