Why ESPN and Robert Lee are right

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Story highlights

  • Roxanne Jones: We want to pretend sports are a sanctuary from world's ugly problems, but that has always been a farce
  • ESPN and Robert Lee's mutual decision to switch games is not unreasonable in today's America, Jones writes

Roxanne Jones, a founding editor of ESPN Magazine and former vice president at ESPN, has worked as a producer, reporter and editor at the New York Daily News and The Philadelphia Inquirer. Jones is co-author of "Say it Loud: An Illustrated History of the Black Athlete." She talks politics, sports and culture weekly on Philadelphia's 900AM-WURD. The views expressed here are solely hers.

(CNN)In the testosterone-laced world of sports, sometimes your name means everything. Think not? I've seen men beaten by mobs just for having the gall to scream out "let's go Cowboys" at an Eagles game. Think of all the racial epithets we've heard, of how one football player, Colin Kaepernick, silently taking a knee during the national anthem in personal protest of injustice in America has divided the nation.

Roxanne Jones
We want to pretend that sports are a safe sanctuary from the world's ugly problems, but that has always been a farce. Truth is, not even the glorious game of football can keep America's toxic culture of bigotry, hate and violence at bay. It's just too heavy a burden.
So imagine if you're scheduled to be the announcer for ESPN's livestream of the University of Virginia's season-opener football game against William and Mary in a few weeks and your name is Robert Lee. But you have watched, along with the world, as thousands of torch-wielding, white supremacists screaming hate-filled chants marched around the UVA campus and rallied all their hate at the foot of a statue bearing your name: Robert Lee. A monument the city had voted to remove under state objections. Well, it's not unreasonable, even though you are Asian-American, that you — and your employer — may have some concerns.
    "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. Think about it. Robert Lee comes to town to do a game in Charlottesville," ESPN said in a statement that was tweeted late Tuesday night. "No politically correct efforts. No race issues. Just trying to be supportive of a young guy who felt it best to avoid the potential zoo." It was a mutual decision, the network says, to switch Lee to the Youngstown State versus Pittsburgh game that same day.
    Nope, not unreasonable at all. Not in today's America. Not when we just witnessed heavily armed, swastika-wearing protesters who believe in white supremacy clashing in the streets with counterprotesters, who believed just as passionately that all people are created equal. Not when one woman is dead and dozens more injured because they had the audacity to stand up to the failed notion of white supremacy. Not when a statue, or a team name, or a presidential tweet can incite racial tensions and violence.
    No matter that Robert Lee is Asian-American and his name has nothing to do with the Confederacy or slavery. It seems unreasonable, ignorant and downright ridiculous to associate his name in any way with the Confederate general. Still, nothing we've witnessed in Charlottesville, or since, has been reasonable or intelligent.
    Nothing we've seen in Charlottesville or other cities and towns where these types of protests and counterprotests have sprung up could be called reasonable. It's disgusting. Killing one another, fighting, chanting Nazi slogans and counterslogans. Still, it continues. We continue.
    As racial tensions over police brutality, immigration and other issues have flared over the past several years in our nation, these statues have become lightning rods — symbolizing oppression, hate and the whitewashing of history for many of us, myself included. Others insist these monuments, of which there are dozens across the nation, are a symbol of Southern pride, an important part of American history.
    Right. If that were the case, wouldn't we also have numerous statues of Malcolm X, Marcus Garvey or Harriet Tubman and countless others who fought for freedom and equality standing proudly outside government buildings, dotting college campuses? Just getting a national monument to Martin Luther King Jr. took decades.
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    Long before the Charlottesville riots, municipalities had begun to remove these Confederate monuments on public property, citing safety issues. And those efforts have increased since Charlottesville. From Baltimore to Brooklyn to Texas, these statues are toppling amid protest.
    While this national conversation continues, ESPN decided to avoid evoking the chaos during a live broadcast. Robert Lee decided he just wanted to do his job, which is to broadcast a livestream of a college football game. As one ESPN executive told me Wednesday:
    "Let's not go to the zoo if we don't have to go to the zoo."
    Good call. Life is crazy enough already.