ESPN’s decision to part with Hank Williams

A furor erupted last week after country-music legend Hank Williams Jr. compared President Barack Obama to Adolf Hitler. By the end of the week, ESPN had severed ties with the longtime curtain-raiser for “Monday Night Football,” a decision that resulted in no small amount of controversy — as well as a new Hank Jr. song.

ESPN’s decision makes sense in light of its policy on political advocacy and how it has handled similar incidents in the recent past. And, according to one of ESPN’s top executives, it didn’t help that Williams didn’t seem to understand why his comments were a big deal.

On Oct. 3, Williams appeared on the show “Fox and Friends” and said the summer’s “golf summit” featuring House Speaker John Boehner and Obama was “one of the biggest political mistakes ever … it would be like Hitler playing golf with [Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin] Netanyahu.”

When one of the Fox hosts said he didn’t understand the analogy, Williams said, “They’re the enemy. … Obama. And [Vice President Joe] Biden. Are you kidding? The Three Stooges.” Later in the segment, when it was noted he’d invoked Hitler’s name in apparent reference to Obama, Williams said, “That is true, but I’m telling you like it is.” (You can see the clip here.)

John Skipper, ESPN executive vice president of content, told Poynter that after seeing the clip, he and a number of other executives “made a fairly quick decision” to drop the Williams intro from that night’s “Monday Night Football.” Then, Skipper said, they decided to “gather more information from all parties involved.”

That additional information took the form of two public statements from Williams. On Monday, after ESPN’s decision not to run the opener, Williams posted a statement on his website that read in part, “I was simply trying to explain how stupid it seemed to me — how ludicrous that pairing was. … I have always respected the office of the President.”

The next day, Williams followed with another statement: “I have always been very passionate about Politics and Sports and this time it got the Best or Worst of me. The thought of the Leaders of both Parties Jukin and High Fiven on a Golf course, while so many Families are Struggling to get by simply made me Boil over and make a Dumb statement and I am very Sorry if it Offended anyone.”

Skipper said ESPN interpreted Williams’ first statement as saying he’d been misunderstood, while his second one didn’t amount to a real apology.

“We reached a decision [last] Wednesday night,” Skipper said. “We felt it was inappropriate to have that song be the opener for ‘Monday Night Football’ given that for a period of time [the Hitler analogy] will be the overwhelming association with Hank. He has every right to voice his opinions, and we have every right to disassociate ourselves from him.”

(ESPN also explored the topic on “Outside the Lines” last week.)

ESPN has established policies on political advocacy — and previously, ESPNers have found themselves in a media tumult after invoking Hitler. ESPN “discourages public participation in matters of political advocacy or controversy among editorial employees, contributors and public-facing talent” and warns that “correspondents, producers, editors, writers, public-facing talent and those involved in news assignments and coverage must avoid being publicly identified with various sides of political issues.”

That policy came up in separate incidents this summer, when ESPN publicly reprimanded golf analyst Paul Azinger for a satirical tweet about how many jobs Obama had created and reportedly spoke privately with Kenny Mayne about a tweeted joke about almost ramming a car with a Sarah Palin bumper sticker “with intent.”

Williams wasn’t an ESPN employee; Skipper said ESPN had a year-to-year contract with Williams to record versions of “All My Rowdy Friends Are Coming Over Tonight” and license it for the opener. (A rewritten version of “Rowdy Friends,” which was first recorded in 1984, had opened “Monday Night Football” since 1989.) But while he wasn’t an employee, Williams’ association with “Monday Night Football,” and therefore with ESPN, qualified him as public-facing talent.

As for invocations of Hitler, the two most infamous of recent vintage at ESPN involve columnist Jemele Hill and coach-turned-college football analyst Lou Holtz.

In June 2008, Hill sought to tease Detroit Pistons fans who had taken to rooting for the Boston Celtics against the Los Angeles Lakers, writing that rooting for the Celtics “is like saying Hitler was a victim.” Later that year, on “College GameDay,” Holtz was discussing the need for leadership among players in the locker room and said, “Let’s remember this: Hitler was a great leader, too. There are good leaders and bad leaders.”

Hill apologized and was suspended for a week; Holtz apologized on the air the next day but was not suspended. (Le Anne Schreiber, in her role as ESPN ombudsman, examined the two cases in a November 2008 column.)

Williams’ comments clearly violated ESPN’s policy on political advocacy, but the real problem is that his invocation of Hitler went much further than either Hill’s or Holtz’s did. Hill was poking Pistons fans in a cartoonish way, while Holtz was offering a clumsy warning about good leaders and bad leaders. The comparison wasn’t a good idea in either case, but neither made the kind of explicitly political statement Williams did.

Yes, the singer’s initial statement on “Fox and Friends” was an analogy, but given a chance to clarify his remarks, Williams didn’t back away from talk of Hitler, portraying Obama and Biden as “the enemy.”

On the same day ESPN cut ties with him, Williams posted a new statement on his site: “After reading hundreds of e-mails, I have made MY decision. By pulling my opening Oct 3rd, You (ESPN) stepped on the Toes of The First Amendment Freedom of Speech, so therefore Me, My Song, and All My Rowdy Friends are OUT OF HERE. It’s been a great run.” Over the weekend, the singer recorded “Keep the Change,” an updated version of his own song that jabbed at both “Fox and Friends” and ESPN.

As an aside, Williams’ statement about his decision mixed up the First Amendment with the more general principle of freedom of speech, an error many of his supporters made as well in their emails — which number in the thousands — to the Poynter Review Project mailbag. The First Amendment forbids the government from restricting freedom of speech but says nothing about what kind of speech one’s employer or business associate must tolerate.

ESPN chose not to tolerate Williams’ speech, effectively ending a long-standing relationship that had seemed destined to continue.

“If this had not happened, there’s no reason to think we would not have brought the song back next year,” Skipper said.

This column was originally published on on Oct. 12, 2011.

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