Since 1989, “All My Rowdy Friends Are Coming Over Tonight” by Hank Williams, Jr. served as the opening theme song to ESPN’s Monday Night Football.
For at least a night, the network decided to drop the trademark tune because of some grossly insensitive and irresponsible comments Williams made last Monday morning.
During an interview on Fox News Channel’s Fox and Friends show, the country singer likened President Obama to Adolf Hitler and ridiculed the president’s golf outing with House Speaker John Boehner, R-Ohio, earlier this year, calling it “one of the biggest political mistakes ever.”
When pressed to elaborate, Williams continued his nonsensical rant.
“Come on! Come on! It’d be like Hitler playing golf with [Israeli Prime Minister] Netanyahu,” said Williams, before adding, “They’re the enemy! Obama! And Biden! Are you kiddin’ me, the Three Stooges!”
Now, Williams is certainly entitled to his opinions and free to express them regardless of their salience or coherence. Still, freedom of expression does not grant immunity from retribution especially if controversy and objection characterize the rhetoric.
In Williams’s case, he used a disgusting analogy, comparing Obama to one of the most hated men in history when common sense dictates that invoking Hitler equals the third rail of politics and culture.
Consequently, ESPN quickly released a statement rebuking Williams and informing the public that MNF would remove the singer’s opening act from its telecast.
“While Hank Williams, Jr. is not an ESPN employee, we recognize that he is closely linked to our company through the open to Monday Night Football. We are extremely disappointed with his comments, and as a result we have decided to pull the open from tonight’s telecast.”
ESPN has clearly distanced itself from Williams by explicitly disavowing the singer’s formal association with the company and condemning his words. Obviously, the network has delved into damage control, trying to save face should Williams drag himself and the network into the mud any further.
Yet, in the bigger scheme of things, ESPN’s reaction to Williams’s comments is in itself quite irresponsible and inadequate.
For over 20 years, the network associated itself with Williams, essentially promoting him and using him as MNF’s de facto spokesman.
Throughout his relationship with ESPN, Williams has produced songs that include lyrics that would not be classified as wholesome or politically correct for that matter, and he has not exactly lived as a symbol of model behavior. Even within the last year, he has made less than kosher statements about politics.
In short, Williams’s antipathy towards Obama has been readily apparent, and ESPN undoubtedly knew about Williams’s strong opinions.
Thus, for ESPN to suddenly find Williams so objectionable as to pull him off the airwaves now is a bit absurd and hypocritical especially if the network’s rationale for chastising Williams is to present a responsible image.
While ESPN’s swift action certainly signals the appropriate response to such talk, the timing and manner of the network’s reaction is frankly bemusing and self-righteous.
It remains to be seen if ESPN will permanently sever ties with Williams or stipulate certain conditions for future affiliation with the company. Williams has since offered a weak apology that simultaneously defends his use of a mangled metaphor and asserts his respect of the office of the presidency.
At this point, however, ESPN should simply stop straddling the fence between tacit approval and belated reprimand by letting Williams go.
Departing ways with the musical symbol of MNF would serve as good symbolism—wiping the slate clean and starting afresh—considering ESPN’s desire for a clean image and the NFL’s once-uncertain future resurrected by a new collective bargaining agreement.
In time ESPN can find another artist more conducive to the network to act as the voice of MNF, should they choose to do so.
Ultimately, the religious anxiety and frustrated anger fans displayed over the league’s possible cancellation was over their love of the game, not Hank Williams, Jr.
NFL fans are clearly ready for football with or without Bocephus and his rowdy friends.
Update: According to John Ourand, ESPN has fired Hank Williams Jr. for his comments.