Last Tuesday, ESPN announced its plan to keep Asian American sports broadcaster Robert Lee from calling a University of Virginia football game due to concern over — of all things — his name. The University of Virginia is located in Charlottesville, the site of recent disturbing and deadly white supremacist activity, and it so happens that broadcaster Robert Lee shares a name with Robert E. Lee, the Confederate general whose statue the white supremacists had been trying to protect.
On ESPN’s part, it was a public relations move as detrimental as it was nonsensical. And indeed outcry did arise, though some of the criticism was indubitably malicious: On Fox News, former ESPN reporter Britt McHenry complained about what she perceived to be the work of the crazed and overly careful left.
And yet, it’s unfortunate that McHenry and others chose to slyly endorse Robert E. Lee under the guise of condemning ESPN’s decision — for the decision, indeed, deserves to be re-studied, but not because ESPN had the decency to ally itself with those who marched against white supremacy in Charlottesville. It’s because, at the end of the day, Robert Lee is an Asian American sports announcer in an industry where few Asian Americans succeed, forced to switch games because of nothing more than his very common Asian surname.
One is forced to question if things would’ve gone differently if Lee’s surname was something more European: Robert Smith, Robert Brown or the like. One must also speculate why ESPN — in all its thinking — did not realize that discriminating against an Asian American employee is fundamentally disparate from choosing the side against white supremacy.
And yet, here’s a potential solution: Perhaps ESPN did not think it was choosing political sides at all.
In an article from The New York Times about the decision, college sports writer Marc Tracy wrote that “the centripetal force of politics is bound to make a battlefield of almost anything,” and quoted ESPN historian James Andrew Miller as saying the network desires “to be as far away from geopolitical and cultural issues as they can be.” Maybe ESPN had a decision to make — politics in sports or no politics in sports — and chose the latter, not realizing every action about race has sociopolitical consequences, regardless of intention.
On a similar note, former San Francisco 49ers quarterback Colin Kaepernick is still under the national spotlight for deciding not to stand for pre-game national anthems, a choice that has opened another divide in the sports fan community. Kaepernick cited his actions as support for minorities currently being oppressed by American society. The sentiment is apparent: He will not honor the symbols of a nation that does not honor its people of color. And yet, his choice came under harsh scrutiny — for being unpatriotic, anti-military — and Kaepernick today is unsigned to any team. However, his concern for the dark side of American symbolism remains glaringly relevant as President Donald Trump fashions a picture of an American flag as his Twitter cover photo, and yet deems the journalists who report on him unpatriotic, seemingly equating allegiance to the country with allegiance to his racist, oppressive agenda.
Put simply, in an industry where the national anthem is played before everything from Little League games to the NFL and where people of color pose such a massive role, one cannot support athlete’s bodies and physical feats without at least acknowledging their political stances. One cannot also — like ESPN — pretend to be colorblind in the hopes that it will erase political ramifications.
Furthermore, everyone knows the wide reach of athletics, which is why last year’s Super Bowl saw commercials that painted a picture of a diverse and resilient America in the face of Trump’s election, and why some of history’s greatest rebellions against political oppression and adversity happened in the athletic arena.
What ESPN and Kaepernick’s critics fail to understand is that sports are political, have always been political and will always be political — no matter what.
Zoe Cheng is a junior majoring in writing for screen and television. Her column, “Cross Section,” runs every Tuesday.