Is crime befitting the punishment?
In the long history of sports and sports-related personalities shooting their mouths off — and themselves in the foot — Hank Williams Jr. isn’t the most outlandish. He is just the latest.
Williams, who belts out “Are Ya Ready for Some Football?” each Monday on behalf of ESPN, was abruptly yanked after an appearance on Fox News Channel’s “Fox & Friends.” No fan of President Obama, he chided the Republican speaker of the house, John Boehner, for playing golf with the president.
“It’d be like Hitler playing golf with Netanyahu,” Williams muttered from behind a pair of dark sunglasses, referring to the current Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. Later, he called Obama and Vice President Joe Biden “the enemy.”
What happened next, alas, is simply more evidence that sports outlets are a lot more ready for some football than they are for dealing with some controversy.
ESPN issued a statement stressing Williams is not an employee, but noted, “We are extremely disappointed with his comments, and as a result we have decided to pull the open from tonight’s telecast.”
Now, there’s no denying Williams has a right to speak his mind. Yet there’s also no denying ESPN is free to not associate with someone perceived to be bad for business.
Still, it’s doubtful many “Monday Night Football” viewers — even die-hard Obama supporters — would boycott the show because of the indignity of Williams appearing before kickoff. So ESPN’s quick action was motivated more out of trying to eliminate a headache than mitigate risk to its bottom line.
The main problem with these foot-in-mouth flare-ups — and in this case, Williams’ subsequent clarification claiming he was “misunderstood” doesn’t hold water — is there’s no way to apply punishments and penalties equitably.
ESPN certainly doesn’t have a rulebook for it, despite past history. It was almost exactly eight years ago when conservative radio host Rush Limbaugh resigned from his secondary gig at the network after suggesting then-Philadelphia Eagle Donovan McNabb was overrated because the media wanted to see a black quarterback succeed.
“I think what we've had here is a little social concern in the NFL. I think the media has been very desirous that a black quarterback do well,” Limbaugh said. “There is a little hope invested in McNabb, and he got a lot of credit for the performance of this team that he really didn't deserve.”
There’s such a long history of idiotic statements by sports figures — especially regarding race — it is sometimes hard to know how to assess levels of outrage. Remember Jimmy “the Greek” Snyder’s rambling dissertation on the superiority of African-American athletes? Former Dodgers GM Al Campanis on blacks lacking “the necessities” to be baseball managers? Tom Brookshier saying the Louisville basketball team had a “collective IQ of about 40?”
Although Williams’ phrasing is incendiary (can we all please agree nobody in American politics ought to be compared to Hitler?), when is suspension warranted versus termination, or merely a reprimand?
Deciding on an appropriate response is also complicated by the fact Williams wasn’t on ESPN when he made his remarks. His conservative views are well known, and he was clearly in friendly territory on Fox News.
Whatever the outcome beyond this week, this is a reminder that “free speech” doesn’t mean speech must be free of consequences — particularly in the context of commercial entities concerned about their images. Just think of the liberal entertainment figures (the Dixie Chicks, actor Sean Penn, most recently crooner Tony Bennett) who have gotten into hot water for speaking their minds.
Ideally, perhaps, people could keep inflammatory views separate from their day jobs. But that’s harder in a digital world that not only moves at lightning speed but where the lines aren’t always completely clear until you’ve crossed them.
What Williams can’t do, with any credibility, is feign shock that being so outspoken might make ESPN uncomfortable. In that regard, he should consult the title of a documentary born out of the Dixie Chicks’ criticism of the last president:
“Shut Up & Sing.”