On why the ESPN-HWJr. fallout only took 20-plus years in the making, and how Fox can help him pick up the pieces

UPDATED: 3 p.m. THURSDAY

i-28a57861b0decf29123b2d9bc3204cf3-hank64scr_ca4dee39931ccdf.jpg

Honestly, we didn’t even realize Hank Williams Jr. was alive until this past Monday afternoon.

When the Bocephusly-challenged country western star showed up on the Fox Channel’s “Fox And Friends” the other day, specifically to “weigh in” on the 2012 Republican presidential field, our DVR must have automatically spit it into the delete file.

Unfortunately, the Internet keeps these things alive, and archived.

So sporting his University of Alabama baseball cap and covered up by his sunglasses, Hammerin’ Hank spoketh. Or, maybe it was Jack Daniels doing the talking.

Any entertainer trying to channel his inner Ted Nugent to talk politics is walking into a trap. But when you go further off topic about something you know absolutely nothing about – like golf – it apparently can get messier.

Making a warbled, inflammatory analogy that somehow links Barack Obama to Adolph Hitler, and then referring to the president and vice president Joe Biden as “the enemy” is apparently not benign enough any longer.

At ESPN, it’s duck-n-cover as the giant bag of ferret fertilizer hits the fanhouse.

After taking a couple of days to measure which way the winds of change were blowing, ESPN declared Thursday that its “Monday Night Football” property would officially secede from any union with Williams. Thus, a partnership ends that began in 1989 – a 22-year run that’s longer than what Howard Cosell ever had.

Williams, who on his own website tried to apologize the other day for what he said, now claims he was the one who surrendered here: “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.”

Wake the neighbors and phone the kids, Hank Williams Jr. is on the loose.

Jeepers, who coulda seen this one coming? Or, more to the point: How did it not happen sooner?

ESPN, the network that once confusingly hired and then fired Rush Limbaugh from its NFL studio show after the political pundit made comments construed as racially insensitive and threatened a staff mutiny, must have had one employee who actually heard a Williams’ CDs.

This bearded bellower was a Campanis-like, Imus-infected implosion waiting to happen.

So now the damage control begins. ESPN self-servingly devoted what became a spirited discussion on Thursday’s “Outside the Lines” midday show about whether “free speech” and football are allowed to intersect.

Panelist and author David Zirin called the network’s decision forced by Williams’ comments that were “profoundly offensive.” But he wasn’t about to let ESPN off the hook.

i-774db7a247ff35ebbfbb6d5bcc42d6aa-hankscr_1d218110cc1fff1.jpg

“If you lent Lindsay Lohan your car and (she) got a DUI, is that her fault or your fault?” he asked.

Robert Thompson, the oft-quoted professor of TV and pop culture from Syracuse, said ESPN “made the right decision” and can rationalize its methods. But he also pointed out that Williams’ analogy was probably misconstrued by those who weren’t looking at it rationally.

“Any comparison to Hitler is almost always ridiculous hyperbole,” he said. “People ought to just knock it off.”

That’s the line you apparently still can’t cross in the media, sports or otherwise. Even when referencing Michael Jordan’s new mustache?

Panelist and radio host Paul Finebaum argued that ESPN could have suspended Williams for a week and sent the same message. In fact, that could have guaranteed a bigger viewership for the upcoming “MNF” game between Chicago and Detroit.

In the end, ESPN cut its losses. Again. It’s only because of its erratic track record in the punishment department, likely determined by Disney shareholders, that we can’t be sure week to week how someone like Williams could be justly treated without letting emotions cloud things. First Amendment toes or not.

Prior to Thursday’s announcement, the absurdly of it all led us to conclude that perhaps the only network able to put this into its proper context was Comedy Central.

Stephen Colbert, on his “Colbert Report,” and Jon Stewart, on “The Daily Show,” each pointed out that Williams’ metaphoric track record included songs he recorded that dealt with the size of female breasts (“Big Top Women”) and how the country would be better if the Civil War ended differently (“If the South Woulda Won (We’d A Had It Made.”)

Colbert called it “tragic” that ESPN “caved to the ‘we shouldn’t compare the President to Hitler’-estapo.” Added Stewart after he rewound the Williams-Fox interview for his audience: “I’m not even sure I understood what he just said.”

i-08677d1b40149e7c223d8cf7f54cec1b-DSC01599.JPG

Steward also offered a just punishment: Make him go to “ESPN4″ and sing “Are You Ready for Actual Football” before a soccer match: “Hands aren’t allowed, and the pitch is just right, Arsenal’s playing Manchester United tonight! Are you ready for a game that will probably end in a tie!”

Now, if only the whiskey-bent and hell-bound Williams, who once released a song “Red, White and Pink-Sleep Blues,” can find some good ol’ American redemption.

Circle back to your friends at Fox, Junior.

Maybe the “NFL on Fox” needs a new pregame show intro. Would you consider a duet with Terry Bradshaw?

Hee haw.

Strike while you’re hot. And apparently still living and breathing hot air.

(Watch Bradshaw sing this Hank Williams Sr. classic, back in 1976):

Facebook Twitter Plusone Digg Reddit Stumbleupon Tumblr Email