Did You Notice? … A difference between two leagues? The NFL, after days of pressure, one sponsor (Radisson) pulling out and a second (Budweiser) giving a veiled threat finally pushed the Minnesota Vikings to keep star running back Adrian Peterson off the field. Peterson, accused of child abuse won’t face trial until early next year but has seen the facts of his case go public, along with a second accusation of beating a child that’s surfaced from 2013. While the trial won’t be until early next year, the ugly shift of public opinion toward the NFL, especially in the corporate boardroom forced the league’s hand to take action or face a potential ten-figure loss (at minimum) in financial support. Peterson’s “exempt list” status, along with Ray Rice’s indefinite suspension for domestic violence is still being criticized in some circles this morning as “not nearly enough.”
The NFL’s reaction was a risky proposition, as ratings showed this week (up across the board) fans are not disgusted with the game… just individual people. The anger aroused by protecting superstars, teams overvaluing one person because they thought it guaranteed their short-term competitive livelihood nearly created a catastrophe. (Perhaps another story for another day, as it involves NASCAR… the product, not the athletes kept fans tuned to their televisions). As it stands, even with these latest developments to right the ship NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell will likely face the firing line for not acting swiftly and decisively, protecting individuals over the league’s own moral code.
Compare that with NASCAR, who remains inactive as a New York District Attorney recommended Tuesday Tony Stewart’s involvement in the death of Kevin Ward, Jr. goes to a grand jury. The possibility of criminal charges, after an investigation that’s lasted over a month looms larger as they decide whether to officially exonerate Stewart or indict him with a charge as high as manslaughter. The future for NASCAR’s three-time champion officially hangs in the balance; along with it is a four-car Sprint Cup team, valued in the hundreds of millions comprised of drivers, sponsors, and hundreds of employees.
Stewart’s decision, while all this legal mumbo jumbo continues to go on is race, to keep “working” similar to the manner in which Adrian Peterson wanted to keep playing. NASCAR’s response? “We are aware of the completed investigation and the announced next steps,” they said in a statement. “First, our thoughts continue to be with all who have been impacted by this tragedy. We will monitor this process and stay in close contact with Stewart-Haas Racing. It would be inappropriate for NASCAR to comment on this case so we will continue to respect the process and authorities involved.”
Let me decipher that for you: “Status quo. Now, we watch and wait.” That’s in response to an investigation that, should Stewart be charged and convicted could send the man to jail for longer than Rice’s and Peterson’s crimes, combined. Just absorb that for a second here. While the Ward tragedy may not be as disgusting as these NFL videos circling the nation, with a number of mitigating factors involved there’s a high degree of seriousness here all the same. Yet NASCAR CEO Brian France, largely absent during the process has remained so during this latest development. The sanctioning body, in opposition to the NFL has let their superstar continue to race while legal proceedings play out.
The sport doesn’t have to do that; like the NFL, all it takes is one swift action and Stewart could be sent to the sidelines, indefinitely until the legal process plays out. NASCAR, however appears worried that stance means they’re making a decision on the three-time champion’s guilt or innocence. They’d rather let that choice be made by the grand jury, not the court of public opinion or pressure from outside sources to “conform” to a series of moral principles. The idea that Stewart would be behind bars, for an extended period of time based on the Kevin Ward, Jr. incident seems incredibly far-fetched to them and other important personnel.
So the move is just to let it go, to do nothing that carries with it the same risk the NFL just negated. Here’s the problem: we’re going to a grand jury. A trial, plus all that comes with it could be a distinct possibility. So what if, hypothetically Stewart gets charged with a crime? What will his sponsors within SHR do then? At the moment, they’ve been publicly supportive, especially Bass Pro Shops, run by Stewart’s personal friend Johnny Morris. But if Stewart gets arrested, officially involved in a criminal case how will the circumstances change? One source, to Frontstretch was specific in their terms: “They’re with him… as long as he’s not charged with a felony.”
The questions, then as Stewart goes to trial will fly in along with the concerns of corporate backers. NASCAR, in the aftermath of charges could be rightfully accused of letting a potential felon race, for multiple weeks instead of acting decisively. The damage to the sport’s public image, through those that don’t understand the sport will take a larger hit. Don’t think so? It’s already twisted through an accident that wasn’t even a stock car event; a portion of the public may never understand the difference between NASCAR and Sprint Cars. The 2014 world of skimming the news, then making a 10-second judgment for the world to see becomes a very dangerous game.
However, the sport has chosen an outright refusal to bow to the court of public opinion, at least not yet. It’s the same way they spent a decade moving Darlington off Labor Day, sticking with a playoff system that brought in less viewership and continually tweaking a Car of Tomorrow that never produced the quality of racing expected.
NASCAR likes to beat to the beat of its own drummer, and right now, they feel doing nothing is the right thing. What’s crazy about it is no one, from sponsors to SHR itself would truly blame them for pulling Stewart from the track at this point. How could someone focus when they have to wake up, every day and know they’re potentially facing serious criminal charges? How could they get in a race car, turn around and go 150 miles per hour every Sunday? Could you? We’d ask Stewart, but he’s not talking to reporters while healing.
Except those wounds don’t close, not for a second until the grand jury makes a decision on the case. Don’t take this column as a personal stance on Stewart; what I think about the driver’s guilt or innocence is inconsequential. That’s what NASCAR appears to be thinking, too.
But I don’t run a business, also called a sport that survives on the funding of corporate sponsors. Should Stewart be exonerated, next week this column is a moot point for NASCAR. Should he not… there’s a big, big problem, everywhere from the court of public opinion to countless NASCAR sponsorship boardrooms across America. People will be making a comparison, fair or not, and they’ll be asking one important question, the same way there’s a firing line this Thursday at Mr. Goodell.
“Why did you do nothing here?”
Note: Check out the author’s additional thoughts in our comments section.
About the author
The author of Did You Notice? (Wednesdays) Tom spends his time overseeing Frontstretch’s 40+ staff members as its majority owner and Editor-in-Chief. Based outside Philadelphia, Bowles is a two-time Emmy winner in NASCAR television and has worked in racing production with FOX, TNT, and ESPN while appearing on-air for SIRIUS XM Radio and FOX Sports 1's former show, the Crowd Goes Wild. He most recently consulted with SRX Racing, helping manage cutting-edge technology and graphics that appeared on their CBS broadcasts during 2021 and 2022.
You can find Tom’s writing here, at CBSSports.com and Athlonsports.com, where he’s been an editorial consultant for the annual racing magazine for 15 years.
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