‘Racist, Confederate Goons’: Heated Debate Erupts on ESPN Over Hank Williams Jr. Departure

A heated debate erupted on ESPN’s show “Outside the Lines” on Thursday during a long segment devoted to whether or not ESPN should have parted ways with Hank Williams Jr. after he made a Hitler analogy earlier in the week.

Things started off fairly benign, but by the end voices were being raised and guests were arguing about the, well, Civil War. This might take some explaining. Hang with me.

Part one featured Ken Paulson of the First Amendment Center, who also used to be editor and senior vice president/news for USA Today; Alexandra Petri of the Washington Post; and Dave Zirin, sports editor of the liberal outlet The Nation. That last name is the most important.

Those three didn’t create any fireworks per se, but they set the stage for the rest of the debate. For example, Paulson noted that while “the spirit of free speech was violated” by ESPN firing Williams* the First Amendment itself was not.

The moderator then asked the piercing question: What do Williams’s views on anything “have to do with his ability to announce it’s time for Monday Night Football?”

Zirin, for the most part, agreed with the others, saying that, “Really, one has nothing to do with the other.” Still, he couldn’t give Williams a free pass: “The NFL is always trying to be all things to all people, and to have as the spokesperson of their flagship show someone who would be viscerally offensive…then it becomes a different question all together.”

But then he made the curious point that Williams’s music advances the idea that we should all be “racist, confederate goons,” which is a reference to Williams’s song, “If the South Woulda Won.”

Here’s that part:

And now we get to the fireworks.

See, ESPN cycled out the first two guests and brought in Paul Finebaum, a radio host down in Alabama where Williams makes his home. He didn’t take too kindly to Zirin’s remarks about “racist, Confederate goons.”

“What people down here don’t like are people like Dave Zirin making idiotic statements about country music songs that Hank Williams has written,” he said, later adding, “I think the statement he made today is the single stupidist I’ve ever heard in the history of this program.”

That led Zirin to talk about country music “stereotypes” and “oppressing people” and Finebaum to levy the charge that “you don’t know what you’re talking about” to Zirin, and even a challenge for Zirin to come down to Alabama.

Now the rockets are red-glaring.

Bomani Jones — the second replacement guest — quickly piped up and said that Williams has “attached himself” to politics that many people find “offensive” and “extreme,” and that since he’s a representative of the network, and because he called the president an “enemy,” then there’s a “problem.”

Time out. Didn’t the president use the word enemies to describe conservatives last year? I think so:

I digress.

It only took about 30 more seconds for the bombs to start bursting on air. Finebaum took some of Zirin’s comments about racism as a personal attack on the South, and went on the defensive. That led to a charge of unprofessionalism and everyone comparing who was more Jewish or more southern.

Finebaum eventually asked a poignant question: “What’s wrong with stating your political opinion? Just because you two guys don’t agree with it, and then you start hiding behind all these elitist attitudes, which people from the South are sick of.”

“Paul! I’m as southern as you are!” Bomani shouted back in response.

Here it is:

Alright, then. But although we’re done with the fireworks, we’re not done with the discussion.

ESPN then brought on Robert Thomspon, who teaches TV and pop culture at Syracuse University. Can you guess what he had to say? Well, he took a page out of Glenn Beck’s book and, while he said he agreed with ESPN’s decision, he made it clear that what Williams made was an analogy and even referenced the SAT (like Glenn).

“Let’s take out Hitler for a second,” he explained. “What if he would have said, ‘Obama playing golf with Boehener is like the Big Bad Wolf playing golf with the Three Little Pigs.’ That’s not actually saying that Obama is the Big Bad Wold and Boehner is the Three Little Pigs. It’s saying that those are similar in that they are both mortal enemies:”

Whew. What a segment. And there is a lot that you could say about it. And I’m sure there will be a lot said about it. Many will certainly wonder where all the outrage was when George W. Bush was compared to Hitler incessantly in the early 2000s. Others will note (as I did) that referring to your opponents as your “enemies” is something Obama made famous last year. And still others will wonder how other stars such as Madonna can make a Hitler reference and still be rumored for a Super Bowl half time appearance.

*I recognize the ESPN claims to have fired Williams and Williams says he quit, but for the sake of this discussion — and since the guests are using the premise that he was fired — we’ll go with “fired.”