Holding A Pretty Wheel · Amy Henderson · Friday March 1, 2013
Every story has two sides. That’s one of life’s truths — along with the truth itself, generally lying somewhere between those two sides. Often, one side makes itself heard before the other, and opinions get formed without knowing the rebuttal. Or, speculation and empty rumors abound until both sides are heard, and then there’s a judgment call about whom to side with on the issue. It’s a little like a court of law: the prosecutor outlines the case and the defense gives their version of events before the jury gets to decide which one is more accurate, and to choose who’s right and who’s wrong.
Except it’s not always black and white. Sometimes nobody is right, and everybody is wrong.
That happened this week in NASCAR. On Wednesday, the sanctioning body announced that Nationwide Series driver Jeremy Clements had been suspended indefinitely for words spoken during an interview. Immediately, the speculation began. What had Clements said? Was this punishment because of his openly questioning the legitimacy of Danica Patrick winning the Daytona 500 pole? Who was the reporter? Had that reporter tattled to NASCAR on Clements? The questions made the social media rounds, along with some unfounded rumors that included the statement on Patrick, equally unfounded threats toward another driver, and probably at least a dozen more theories, some serious, others in jest.
The rule itself is black and white: NASCAR’s rulebook forbids any public statement ‘‘that criticizes, ridicules or otherwise disparages another person based on race, color, creed, national origin, gender, sexual orientation, marital status, religion, age or handicapping condition.” And they have certainly taken action on violations of that policy in the past. In one respect, the rule is no different than any of the hundreds that specify what may or may not be done on a race car.
Unlike the rules that govern the cars, though the actual infraction isn’t black and white. A race car is legal or it’s not, but rules that govern humans aren’t so simple. NASCAR confirmed Thursday that Clements’ suspension was the result of a racial slur he’d used while talking to the reporter in question. Clements later confirmed that in an interview with ESPN’s Marty Smith but denied that the slur had been directed at anyone. Furthermore, Clements maintained, the comment had been made off the record. Unfortunately for the driver, it was also made in the presence of a NASCAR representative.
In the interview with Smith, Clements said, “When you say ‘racial’ remark, it wasn’t used to describe anybody or anything,” Clements said. “So that’s all I’m going to say to that. And it really wasn’t. I was describing racing, and the word I used was incorrect and I shouldn’t have said it. It shouldn’t be used at all.”
Clements declined to say the exact words for which he was suspended (and you can’t blame him, he’s already been punished for saying them once). Based on his admission, though you can probably make an educated guess about the type of word in question. (Editor’s Note: It was for saying the “n” word, confirmed in a report Friday morning by the reporter, MTV’s Marty Beckerman.)
Clements was right — the word shouldn’t have been used. Period, end of story. There’s no place in today’s society for racial slurs. We’re not in the nineteenth century, folks. Using words of that nature is ignorant and speaks to a lack of sophistication. There is no excuse for them in any conversation, ever. It’s wrong. It just is.
But NASCAR isn’t really right here, either. Should Clements have been penalized? Yes. People of all races find racial slurs offensive, and if the reporter or the official was offended by it, that’s perfectly understandable, even if neither was of the race specifically being degraded. But indefinite suspension (which, incidentally means a minimum of two races and mandatory counseling) is a little over the top. Had it been said on the record, published and had NASCAR found out about it by seeing it in print, that might have warranted their reaction. If it had been directed at a person, then it would definitely warrant it. But off the record and never published? The sanctioning body should have fined Clements, maybe sat him one race. Instead… indefinite suspension? What would they do if it had been published and/or directed, ban him for life?
Plus, I want to say I think that NASCAR would have done the same if the driver in question had been a big-name driver for a big-time team. But I can’t quite say it. Not that I think any of them are running around spouting bigoted remarks left and right, but what if a superstar did let one slip? What if it were someone like title favorite Elliott Sadler, who is one of the series’ biggest stars, driving for its biggest team? I want to say I think they would react in the same way. I certainly hope they would be consistent… but I can’t quite say, with 100% certainty, that I think they would. So if they are, indeed, making an example out of a small team with an extra-large penalty to make a point, well, shame on NASCAR.
But the implications in this mess are so much bigger than one driver’s comment to one reporter. It could potentially impact the way drivers and media interact and how the drivers are portrayed to the fans through those interactions. Media members are acquainted with people throughout the garage, and off-the-record conversations aren’t uncommon by any stretch. Will drivers now be afraid to have these conversations? Will they become more aloof? That impacts race fans because it could change the way drivers are portrayed. If drivers only speak in carefully controlled situations, to avoid any possibility of making a mistake and saying the wring thing, they give the impression that they’re nothing more than sponsor-operated automatons — an impression that some fans already have of many drivers. If drivers have to fear repercussions for every conversation, soon they won’t say anything of substance at all.
We’ve already seen drivers penalized for Twitter comments that NASCAR thinks are unfavorable towards them. Just last week, Brad Keselowski got called to the carpet for stating something that’s been said by plenty of people, just not in a USA Today feature. So, maybe next time, a driver won’t say anything at all of substance. And 43 shallow, empty drivers in every series (36 in trucks) will drive fans away faster than any boring race ever will.
Now, is there a level of trust between NASCAR drivers and the reporters that cover the sport regularly? Yes, and drivers don’t have to live in fear of those reporters running to NASCAR with off-the-record words. But a NASCAR official overheard this one, and that was where the trouble began. Sure, they’ll still talk away from NASCAR’s eyes and ears, but will they always have one eye looking behind them in the garage? Maybe they’ll have to, and that’s a shame.
So this incident is one that could, potentially, have some longer-term repercussions within the sport, ones that could even reach the fans. It has nothing to do with political correctness gone too far. Racial slurs are simply wrong, whether you’re feeling PC or not. You can be interesting, and really quite un-PC and still not resort to using words of that nature. It’s not really a fine line here. What was said was wrong and never should have been said.
Clements was wrong to use the word he used in any conversation, no matter who it was with. If he’d been in a soundproof room with his best friend, he shouldn’t have said it.
But NASCAR wasn’t right in reacting so strongly, either. A hefty fine and a one-race sitting down would have gotten the point across just fine. Maybe he should even take the sensitivity training that NASCAR outlined. But two weeks (and it could be much more, if NASCAR so chooses) seems excessive given the context of the remark.
The bottom line here is that words have power. This one had the power to make NASCAR penalize a driver. It also has the power to be hurtful and cruel, and that kind of word says something rather unsavory about the person who uses them as well. But NASCAR also sent a message to drivers, media, and fans with the punishment, and it wasn’t necessarily the one that should have been sent. It also may or may not be the one that would have been sent to a higher-profile driver, and that’s not ever someplace there should be a question.
When all is said and done, Clements was wrong to say the word he said. NASCAR was wrong to react so strongly given the context in which it was said. And if drivers have to start fearing that they could be overheard and punished for off-the-record comments (or Twitter posts, or Instagram photos…) and they clam up as a result, that hurts their fans and sponsors as well. Outspokenness should, for the most part, be encouraged at every turn by NASCAR, but they don’t.
If you were watching a courtroom drama right now, someone would be reading the verdict. Someone would be right and someone would be wrong and that would be that. But this isn’t a TV show, and there’s no winner. Everyone was wrong… and nobody was right.
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