ESPN drops Hank Williams Jr. from ‘Monday Night Football’ intro

Credit: File Photo

Credit: File Photo

ESPN is replacing Hank Williams Jr. in the opening to “Monday Night Football,” saying his iconic country-rock anthem would send the wrong message in the COVID-19 era and clash with the sparse crowds that are expected at NFL games this season.

The move, first reported Tuesday by Sports Business Journal, marks the second time in nine years that the network has cut ties with Williams.

The surprise decision was almost certain to be criticized as politically motivated amid a national cultural shift on race and a simultaneous outcry against “cancel culture” in the aftermath of George Floyd’s death in May.

Williams' song “All My Rowdy Friends Are Here on Monday Night” debuted in 1989, and ESPN continued to use it when the prime-time matchup moved over from ABC in 2006. In 2011, the network stopped using Williams' song for six years after he publicly compared President Barack Obama to Adolf Hitler. In 2017, however, during President Donald Trump’s first year in office, Williams was back by popular demand.

For the 2020 season, the network will open every week with a rendition of “Rip It Up” by rock 'n' roll legend Little Richard, who died in May.

ESPN has not said whether it plans to bring back Williams' song when full crowds presumably return next season, according to Sports Business Journal.

Richard’s estate, along with his old label, Concord Records, have teamed up with the Virginia-based band Butcher Brown to record the opening.

The plan is to have the majority Black band perform the instrumentals in a mash-up with Richard’s vocals, reports said.

The choice of Little Richard is notable given the country’s changing attitudes about racial equality. Some of the biggest and most influential names in corporate America, including NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell, have expressed an urgent commitment to ending systemic racism in America.

Further, the league also plans to feature live or recorded performances of the Black National Anthem “Lift Ev’ry Voice And Sing,” at the start of every Week 1 game, ESPN reported. Also under consideration are a variety of initiatives throughout the season that will commemorate victims of police brutality.

The recent groundswell of support for Black Lives Matter is an astonishing about-face from three years ago, when the league blackballed quarterback Colin Kaepernick for kneeling during the national anthem as a silent protest against police brutality.

But ESPN has not offered any of these as reasons for its decision, despite a handful of Williams' songs that do glorify the Confederacy, whose flags and monuments have become key targets during recent racial protests around the country.

Those song titles include “If the South Woulda Won” and “If Heaven Ain’t a Lot Like Dixie.”

ESPN president Jimmy Pitaro has long been effective at steering the network clear of controversies and has built a brand culture that strictly adheres to sports topics, reports say.

This is why some observers said the decision by the front office to remove Williams was most likely hitched to empty stadiums and the pandemic so that it would not appear political.