In our segmented, culturally segregated, 5,000-channel era, the NFL might be the last entertainment product that tries to be all things to all people. Black or white; Northerner or Southerner; male, or female: the NFL wants your passion and wants your money. Last week, for example, was a nod to the wallets of women everywhere, as all players were tinted in bright-pink to “raise breast cancer awareness.” The gravity of the issue didn’t stop Cowboys owner Jerry Jones from displaying his cage-dancing cheerleaders in a more straightforward display of breast-awareness, hold the cancer.
The broadcasts are also pointedly diverse as over-caffeinated talking heads come in all colors. The NFL and their chief broadcast partner ESPN in particular wants the disposable income of one particularly thorny demographic: your right-wing, gun-toting, Palin-loving, Southern football fans. That’s why ESPN inexplicably hired Rush Limbaugh in 2003 to be part of their NFL pre-game team. And that’s why Bocephus himself, Hank Williams Jr. has sang the Monday Night Football theme song for twenty years. But therein lies the NFL’s problem. It’s a trap game. Eventually Limbaugh had to open his mouth, and just as the sun rises in the East, the bile did spew. He of course spoke out in crudely racist terms about then–Eagles quarterback Donovan McNabb, everyone in the ESPN corporate offices reached for their vapors, and Limbaugh was gone.
Now Hank Williams Jr. has been bounced from singing about “all [his] rowdy friends” because he appeared on Fox and Friends and compared Barack Obama to Adolf Hitler. ESPN issued the following shocked response, saying, “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.”
Hank Williams Jr. then put forward a bizarre apology where he felt the need to say, “Every time the media brings up the Tea Party it’s painted as racist and extremists—but there’s never a backlash—no outrage to those comparisons.” So a Tea Party supporter compares The Nation’s first African-American president to Hitler and then says it’s a double standard to criticize him because no one gets mad at those who call the Tea Party racist. I now need more coffee.
The bigger question is, Why was ESPN surprised? This is Hank Williams Jr. we’re talking about, not Amy Grant. The man brags that he’ll never stop “speaking my mind.” Unfortunately, his mind resides somewhere on a plantation rocking chair. It’s not just his past controversial statements, such as when he sang about Obama’s “”terrorist friends” at a McCain Palin fundraiser in 2008. The guy actually wrote a song in 1988 about the Civil War called “If the South Would Have Won.” The lyrics are, “If the South would have won we would have it made. / I’d make my supreme court down in Texas / and we wouldn’t have no killers getting off free / If they were proven guilty then they would swing quickly / instead of writing’ books and smiling’ on TV / We’d put Florida on the right track, ‘cause we’d take Miami back.” (From who? Jews? Cubans? Haitians? Or will Hank go for the trifecta?) “…I said, if the South woulda won / we would a had it made!/Might even be better off!” (In a league where 70 percent of the players are black, 100 percent of the owners are white, maybe this should be the Monday Night theme song.)
The problem, in other words, isn’t Hank Williams Jr. It’s ESPN and the NFL thinking they can stretch the boundaries of their product to unite racists and anti-racists; neoconfederates and people who are ready to put the Stars and Bars in our national rear-view mirror; Redskins fans and those who find that franchise name sickening. We are living in times of profound polarization. If the NFL really wants to cater to the demographic that loves Hank Williams Jr. and Rush Limbaugh, they’d be better ordering the Broncos to just start Tim Tebow.