Hank Williams, Jr. will no longer be heard on television on Monday nights. The country singer, now famous for little else besides singing the Monday Night Football theme song, no longer fit cable channel ESPN’s view of the image it would like its broadcast to have. It hastily pulled the theme song last Monday, and made the change permanent in an announcement on Thursday.
Officially, the move is the result of the regrettable political statements Williams made on a television program last Monday. He referred to the U.S. president and vice president as “the enemy” and compared someone, either the president or the house speaker, to a World War II villain who is better not mentioned by name. He failed to walk back his comments when offered the opportunity. ESPN would be hard pressed to put forward as an entertainment icon a person who had said these things, and historically, football broadcasters have been dismissed for lesser misstatements.
But there is more to it than this. It may be just as important that while he was insulting his country, Williams was coming across as an unwashed, unconcerned ruffian, a vagrant but for a change of clothes. Williams may have cleaned up his image somewhat in the early 1990s to become an unofficial spokesman for the National Football League, but now the NFL is upgrading its image, and Williams was not playing along.
The NFL is forced to change because of economic trends. Beer and pickup trucks may have defined the TV image of the NFL for a generation, but they haven’t been so prominent in the last six years. U.S. beer consumption has declined every year since about 1998, and more of it is coming from microbreweries, less from the major breweries and importers that were the dominant advertisers on NFL broadcasts in the 1990s. Pickup trucks are also in decline because of shifts in the economy, so much so that General Motors went bust, and they won’t be paying the rent for the NFL in the foreseeable future either. Instead, the NFL is trying to clean up its image to become more female-friendly, following the example of ice hockey, so that it can draw a broader audience and a broader range of advertisers.
Hank Williams, Jr.’s thrown-out-of-better-bars-than-this persona could scarcely have presented a more conspicuous clash with the NFL’s current promotional pitch, which is about selling pink team apparel for women and is tied to breast cancer awareness. When Williams forced ESPN and the NFL to take a closer look, I’m sure what they found was that there wasn’t a place for him in the NFL’s freshly scrubbed image. At the same time, another problem was looming. U.S. laws don’t permit political candidates to be broadcast entertainers, so ESPN would have been obliged to drop Williams, probably before the end of the season, as soon as he officially launched his campaign for the U.S. Senate.
Williams may have forced ESPN’s hand, but it was a move that was coming anyway. Beer is inexorably declining in U.S. culture, and everything that is tied to it must either adjust or decline along with it.