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First Amendment no defense for Williams

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By Barry Jackson

You can disagree, if you wish, with ESPN's decision to part ways with Hank Williams Jr. and all his rowdy friends.

But don't start parroting Williams and telling us ESPN "stepped on the toes of the First Amendment." And don't say ESPN is making a political stand because that, too, would be off base.

In case you missed it, ESPN pulled Williams' opening from this week's Colts-Bucs game after he appeared on Fox News and called President Obama and Vice President Joe Biden "the enemy" and said Obama's golf outing with House Speaker John Boehner was "like Hitler playing golf with [Israeli Prime Minister] Benjamin Netanyahu."

Williams apologized, but ESPN dropped him a few days later. Williams insisted he quit and suggested ESPN disregarded the First Amendment — a bandwagon that many of his supporters have jumped on.

For those defending Williams with the "free speech" argument, a quick civics lesson: The First Amendment, among other things, prohibits making any law that impedes freedom of speech. But the free speech element of the First Amendment does not prevent a private company from firing someone who embarrasses the company by saying something foolish or offensive.

Unless the employee has a clause in his contract that he can say whatever he wishes, he's subject to discipline or dismissal for remarks the employee deems offensive. It's that simple. ESPN has a lot of power, but it's not a governing body.

The other anti-ESPN backlash has come from conservatives who suggest ESPN is trying to protect Obama. You know, the whole media/liberal bias angle. But do you know who ESPN is really trying to protect? ESPN.

As one ESPN source said, why would the network "want to mess around with the Monday Night Football brand," make advertisers uncomfortable or alienate viewers who now view Williams negatively? Ultimately, as the source said, Williams' musical openings simply weren't worth the aggravation, the public backlash, that his comments created. And that has nothing to do with a "freedom of speech" issue.

Other media notes:

  • It's natural to accentuate the positive when someone dies, and most of the coverage of Al Davis' passing was pretty fawning. But CBS took a more balanced approach, with Boomer Esiason noting the Raiders are 39-93 since 2003 and Bill Cowher mentioned how Davis was "confrontational and controlling," and how he would call coaches during games to dictate long passes or a change in defensive approach.
  • Personal pet peeve: Fox's John Lynch asserting late in the Saints-Panthers game that Carolina would be ahead by eight, not four, if it had not missed an extra point in the first quarter and a subsequent field goal. Why do announcers say this kind of thing? What's to say the game would have gone exactly the same way if the Panthers had made those kicks?
  • Fox wisely moved its NFL score ticker to the bottom of the screen this year. Unfortunately, Fox's scroll doesn't have team records (unlike CBS) and it took Fox four weeks to realize it needed to insert player statistics, besides the scores. Also, there's no need for Fox to superimpose its logo in two places. The screen is cluttered enough.
  • Those four-day old highlights on Showtime's Inside the NFL are a hoot because of the audio from players who are miked up. We heard Raiders coach Hue Jackson approach Patriots receiver Wes Welker before a game and say, "You caught 16 balls the last game. That's two games worth. So you can chill today."
  • And after the Eagles' Jason Babin got his league-leading seventh sack partly because Cullen Jenkins drew a double team, we heard Jenkins tell Babin, "[That's] two sacks I got you." Said Babin: "The Jenkins are going on vacation with the Babins."


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