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ESPN’s delayed decision to cut ties with Williams evidence of network’s blurred policies

On the surface, it seems a ludicrous question to ask, one week after a country superstar compared the President to one of history’s worst mass-murderers, getting himself booted off TV’s most venerated showcase for football in the process.

But I still find myself asking: Why exactly did ESPN take Hank Williams Jr.’s theme song off “Monday Night Football?”

If ESPN were just an entertainment company, the answer would be simple. He said something publicly which made his brand radioactively controversial, so they separated their brand from his.

In other words, he committed the cardinal sin of an endorser; he risked making the sponsor look bad.

John Skipper, ESPN’s vice president of content, said as much in an interview for the Poynter Review Project, a series of columns which provide an ombudsman-style look at ethical issues faced by the sprawling sports media company.

“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,” Skipper said in a quote from the project’s column Wednesday on the issue, written by Poynter Institute ethics instructor Kelly McBride and Jason Fry, my colleague here at the National Sports Journalism Institute’s columnists lineup.

Still, ESPN is not just an entertainment company. It is also a journalism company, which means it has a greater responsibility to be transparent about its actions and a greater responsibility to follow guidelines every employee can easily understand and anticipate.

In this light, ESPN’s initial press release on pulling Williams’ theme from the Oct. 3 game – which said they were “extremely disappointed with his comments” – left a lot of wiggle room. Williams compared President Obama and House Speaker John Boehner playing golf together to “Hitler playing golf with (Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin) Netanyahu.”

Was it his invoking of Hitler? The racial and cultural resonance of using such a comparison with a black president and a Jewish prime minister? Williams’ unwillingness to back down and erratic behavior during the Fox News interview itself? (“Daily Show” host Jon Stewart later quipped he could “smell the Jack Daniels on his breath from the television.”)

Poynter’s column tries to address this, saying “ESPN’s decision makes sense in light of its policy on political advocacy and how it has handled similar incidents in the past,” noting that columnist Jemele Hill and football analyst Lou Holtz had to apologize for invoking Hitler in commentary on air.

Another problem here: ESPN seemed to wait until the comments became a full-blown controversy to act.

In an interview with Sports Business Daily, ESPN vice president of communications Mike Soltys said the Huffington Post’s reporting on Williams’ interview and USA Today reporter Michael Hiestand’s piece for his “Game On” blog connecting the comments to “Monday Night Football” has a greater impact on the controversy.

“From a PR end, 20 years ago, when an issue would break locally, we would just hold our breath that the local (Associated Press) reporter wouldn’t notice it,” Soltys told SBD. “Then it became, ‘Would SBD notice it?’ That has evolved to now where you know everything is going to be noticed. As soon as we saw the Huffington Post thing – even though it wasn’t connecting it to ESPN – we knew that we had an issue to deal with.”

But I noted in a previous column that Williams already had questionable public statements in his past, including writing an anti-Obama song for the 2008 election (which he updated after his departure from ESPN), voicing anti-Obama political ads during that same election and performing a song where he pines for an America where the Confederate South had won the Civil War.

In truth, Williams has often skirted the boundary between Southern pride and cultural insensitivity many, many times. It would have been nice to see ESPN react to Williams’ antics before they became a full-blown controversy, simply because he violated their standards.

You know, like news organizations do.

Seems to me that Williams likely violated whatever standard ESPN had about political stances and public statements long before last week. And failing to say why this situation is somehow different than the others – beyond the public humiliation factor, of course – leaves the public and employees guessing as to what exactly made this event a firing offense.

In a perfect world ESPN would have taken a stance on some of the larger implications wrapped up in Williams actions, so fans, staff and fellow journalists had a sense where exactly the line falls on these issues at the Worldwide Leader.

Maybe I can figure out a way to make this a major topic on Twitter and in cyberspace.

I have it on good authority that’s a great way to spark a reaction at ESPN.

Eric Deggans is TV and Media Critic for the St. Petersburg Times and a 1990 graduate of the Indiana University School of Journalism. His work has also appeared in the Washington Post, Village Voice, VIBE magazine, Chicago Tribune, Detroit Free Press, Chicago Sun-Times and many other publications. He also writes a blog on media, The Feed.

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