As I've been putzing around the house today, decluttering a bit, I heard the news that ESPN has dropped Hank Williams Jr.'s theme song from their Monday Night Football broadcasts, over the remarks he made earlier this week on Fox News, comparing President Obama to Hitler.
I'm not going to comment (much) on whether or not ESPN's decision was the right one or not. ESPN was going to take criticism no matter what it decided to do, and I don't know what the "right" thing for ESPN to do would be.
But I was struck by how familiar this story is. When I was growing up, I remember seeing Jimmy "The Greek" Snyder on The NFL Today, CBS's premiere NFL pregame show, making his predictions on every game that week. Snyder made some rather stupid remarks about African-American athletes in a restaurant one night that were recorded and widely circulated, and CBS summarily dismissed him. He never returned to public life.
More recently, of course, we have ESPN dumping Rush Limbaugh after a couple of weeks as an NFL commentator because of remarks he made regarding Donovan McNabb. Of course, Rush has a day job, so he survived just fine --- as I expect Hank Williams Jr. will do as well.
For me, what's striking is this. You can become admired for doing something, and in fact doing something well. You can accumulate a huge amount of good will in the process. And then, you can become reviled in a minute by saying something particularly stupid ... in particular, something stupid outside your world of expertise.
This past month has been, for me, a bit of an emotional roller coaster --- incredible disappointment, followed by elation, followed by disappointment, followed by encouragement, and so on. Such is the way of life for an academic, where hubris is one of our besetting sins. It is particularly easy for folks like me to get caught up in the sound of our own voice, especially when that earns the praise of others. It can lead us to speak with authority we don't really have on topics we don't really understand. And that's a recipe for a disaster waiting to happen.
Sometimes, when I enter the classroom, I am conscious of how precarious my position as a semi-public figure is. Not that my job is in any danger --- far from it. But it wouldn't take much for me to say something incredibly stupid in the middle of a lecture, and end up being quietly (and justifiably) ushered out the door for it --- with all my friends shaking their heads in wonder about how I could ever do something so stupid. Thankfully, I've got the good sense not to do anything like that. (I think.) But the possibility is always there.
It's incredibly important to remember: fame and adulation are transitory. One should pursue things of more permanent value.
And I write this as a means of instructing myself on the topic as much as anyone else.
Not many of you should become teachers, my fellow believers, because you know that we who teach will be judged more strictly. (James 3:1)