The dumbest controversy of all time

Mark McGuire:

There is always an internal debate over how much political news belongs in this sports section. Such reports and commentary fill the rest of the newspaper and website. And cable news. And our personal Twitter and Facebook feeds. (Man, that high school friend went off the deep end.)

Can’t we have one oasis where we can argue about only the important stuff, such as whether the New York Jets will win a game (yes, but not two), or who is going to take the Travers (no idea; ask Mike MacAdam or Bill Heller)?

But there is no denying politics, partisan and otherwise, crosses into the sports realm, from the ongoing Colin Kaepernick saga and Kevin Durant saying he would not go to the White House if invited to the issue of pay inequality in women’s sports.

Some of these topics are profound, transcending the day-to-day games, and should be discussed. They say something not just about sports, but where we are as a society.

And some are just … stupid.

But they provide fuel to our rage machine, our desire to yell and be outraged and shake our heads.

So Robert Lee, best known locally for his standout work doing play-by-play for Siena basketball, was switched off calling a Virginia football game by ESPN because he shares the name with Robert E. Lee, the Confederate general.

All this stems from the the heightened sensitivities to all things Confederate in the wake of the unrest earlier this month in Charlottesville, the home of UVA, involving white nationalists.

“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,” ESPN said in a statement. “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.”

In an email to writer Yashar Ali that the contributing writer to New York Magazine, Mother Jones and HuffPost posted on Twitter, an unnamed ESPN exec said the move was done to avoid “memes and jokes and who knows what else” and a “potential zoo.”

What ESPN got instead was … that potential zoo realized, and one of the top-trending topics on Twitter.

Rage, snark, head-shaking — it’s all there.

And what Lee — who, by the way, has a hardly unusual name for an Asian-American — suddenly found himself in the middle of our national nervous breakdown.

Lee did not respond to a request for comment. He did not ask for this. He does not deserve this.

You can argue — as many have — that ESPN was being overly cautious if not politically correct. But the truth is the PR people were right in one sense: Lee, who in a nod to his name goes locally by the nickname “The General,” certainly would have been the subject to at least some Twitter snark.

And … who isn’t?

Instead, ESPN made a move to pull him off this game, a move that inevitably got leaked … which put Lee in the spotlight by a factor of 10. …

ESPN, as always, is low-hanging fruit here. If it did nothing and Lee did a Virginia game in Charlottesville, certainly some would have hit the network as insensitive. At best, the easy jokes would have flown.

And by doing something, ESPN looks worse.

But you know who looks worst of all? All of us. The fact this conversation is even going on. The fact that an Asian sportscaster with the same name as a Confederate general is prompting all this angst, this rage and snark, this column. The fact everything has to be looked at now through the political and partisan lens. This story really does say something about where we are as a society.

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