Hank Williams Jr.’s return signals ESPN’s desperation

WASHINGTON — This has not been a banner year for ESPN. 

More than a month removed from massive layoffs that included some big name talent, ESPN has now announced it’s bringing country singer Hank Williams Jr. back to his familiar role as the carnival barker for his “rowdy friends” on Monday Night Football. The move comes six years after Williams lost the longtime gig for mentioning former President Barack Obama in the same breath as Adolf Hitler (which, by the way, hasn’t stopped him from continuing to spew controversial rhetoric since).

If you listen to ESPN’s explanation, it’s simply reuniting one of the most famous sports anthems with the prime-time event with which it’s forever linked. The real reasoning, in all likelihood, is to reverse the misguided perception that the network has a liberal agenda. In fact, ESPN has spent much of this year going out of its way to prove it’s not liberal.

The main “sin” ESPN has allegedly committed is the attention it has paid to Colin Kaepernick. The former San Francisco 49ers quarterback’s yearlong silent and peaceful resistance during the national anthem last season was a worthy topic of debate, especially when you take into account how widespread the resistance has been. It remains newsworthy because the former Super Bowl QB can’t even land a backup job despite coming off a pretty good 2016 campaign and having stats that dwarf any of the league’s current 32 backup QBs.

This storyline came to full bloom Monday when the Seattle Seahawks — a seemingly perfect fit for Kaepernick — opted to sign career backup Austin Davis as Russell Wilson’s understudy. Most people would have to look Davis up to even know who he is, so I’ll save you the Google search: He’s the former Browns QB who got benched for Johnny Manziel. If you believe he’s a better QB than Kaepernick, you probably thought the Herschel Walker trade was a fair deal.

Ironically, politics weren’t really seeping into sports until these attempts to make it not about politics. ESPN’s struggles as a network have nothing to do with its alleged left-leaning tendencies. It has everything to with its failure to account for the growing number of viewers cutting the cord on cable and the network’s yearslong commitment to replacing actual journalism with the cheap and salacious.

Darin Gantt of ProFootballTalk.com said it best regarding the notion that ESPN is too political, calling it “largely just a euphemism for letting non-white people and women talk.” ESPN has personalities who are outspoken on social matters, but they generally aren’t directly political. What many fail to realize is that “politics as usual” no longer apply: Much of what we’re seeing and reading nowadays are actually social matters.

So ESPN and other outlets are right to allow their talent to question why New York Giants owner John Mara can be so resolute that he won’t employ Kaepernick (whose worst crime is speaking his mind on social matters) despite already gainfully employing admitted spouse abuser Josh Brown (right up until public outcry forced his release). It’s fair to ask why names like Brock Osweiler, Matt Barkley and Case Keenum are on NFL depth charts but not Kaepernick’s. In a league devoid of quality backup QBs, having a capable starter blackballed for reasons outside of football is absolutely a worthwhile topic.

But instead of addressing its real problems, ESPN has chosen to take Monday Night Football back to its roots — a phrase that makes people of color in this country really uncomfortable — especially when that entails embracing someone like Williams. The fact that it happened the same day the Seahawks inexplicably passed on Kaepernick is a difficult pill for NFL fans of color to swallow.

The reality is, ESPN could have truly made a strong statement by announcing a fresh, new MNF anthem featuring pop stars that are currently relevant, maybe even rolling out some new initiatives that would make up for their loss of cable subscribers. Instead, it’s glossing over Williams’ ignorant comments to recycle an old, tired football anthem and demonstrating the questionable judgment that got them into trouble in the first place.

Ready for some football? The MNF franchise certainly hasn’t been since ESPN took over.

Rob Woodfork

Rob Woodfork is WTOP's Senior Sports Content Producer, which includes duties as producer and host of the DC Sports Huddle, nightside sports anchor and sports columnist on WTOP.com.

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