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Thompson in Turn 5: Griese’s Comments Uncalled For, But Situation Handled Well By All Involved

During post-race interviews following Sunday’s TUMS Fast Relief 500 at Martinsville, race winner Denny Hamlin predicted that his victory would not be the primary focus of the sports media, who instead would make the Chase for the Sprint Cup Championship the lead story. Hamlin believed that most of the nation’s sports reporting venues would first feature the “postseason” standings, how the Chase competitors fared against points leader Jimmie Johnson, and then – as almost an afterthought – the Virginia native’s exciting win.

As it turned out, Hamlin was only partially correct. As has been the case in the past – for better or worse – the Chase does appear to garner far more coverage than the happenings at the individual races, and the Martinsville edition of the 10-race playoff format was no exception. But what Hamlin did not count on is that a poorly thought out remark made by ESPN college football analyst Bob Griese the previous day would trump both his home state win and the Chase for print and broadcast coverage.

To recap, just in the miniscule possibility that there is anyone left that is not familiar with the story, the Pro Football Hall of Fame quarterback remarked on Saturday that Juan Pablo Montoya was “out having a taco” in response to colleague Chris Spielman’s question as to where Montoya currently sat in the point standings. Griese, apparently understanding that his comment was not appropriate, later apologized during the broadcast of the Ohio State-Minnesota game that he was working, saying that Montoya was one of the “best drivers” in NASCAR. He then offered up a second on-air apology during halftime of ESPN’s Florida-Mississippi State game.

“Earlier today on our game, I made an offensive comment regarding Juan Pablo Montoya as part of a NASCAR promo,” said Griese. “It was regrettable, and I should not have said it. I really enjoy NASCAR, and I follow it closely, and would like to take this opportunity to apologize to Juan, NASCAR, and everyone else who heard my comment.”

Give Griese, who guided the Miami Dolphins to two Super Bowl wins during his 14-year pro career, credit for immediately stepping up and taking responsibility for his gaffe. As the announcer himself admits, he “should not have said it.” However, he did say it… and he manned up to the mistake. There really wasn’t much more, given the situation, that he could have done.

Griese’s off-the-cuff comment was probably no more than an attempt at some impromptu humor, albeit a joke that was not particularly funny and one that was uttered in the wrong place. Jokes concerning race and ethnicity may have a place on the comedy club circuit or on sitcoms geared towards a target audience that is accepting of such humor, but not on a nationally televised sports broadcast.

Yet there seems to be an almost overwhelming opinion that Griese’s comments were no big deal and that the press made too much of it. Perhaps so, as we’re certainly known to beat a subject into the ground; but nonetheless, it was far more than a non-story. There simply is no place in sports coverage for ethnic stereotyping. The practice adds nothing to the sporting event, and has the potential of unnecessarily alienating and offending some in the audience.

So for anyone that does not believe that Griese’s ill-conceived comment was unacceptable, for one moment consider what the ramifications of his remark would have been had Montoya been a black NASCAR driver and the word “watermelon” had been used in place of “taco.” Still not a big deal?

Of course it would have been a big deal! African-Americans would have been up in arms – and rightfully so!

But it is OK if a similar comment is directed at Montoya since he isn’t black, but instead Hispanic? Again, of course not!

Monday, ESPN announced that Griese would be disciplined for his “unfortunate” remark with a one-game suspension. Griese will not be in a ESPN broadcast booth for any game next Saturday, but beyond that, no other punishments would be handed down by the network.

It’s a fair decision by the network, it seems. A one week suspension does not seem particuarly harsh, yet sends a message to Griese as well as others that such comments are not to be tolerated.

As for the aggrieved party, Montoya, who grew up in Colombia and no doubt had little knowledge of American style football, he said he does not even know who Griese is.

“I don’t really care, to tell you the truth,” Montoya said when asked about the offensive remark. “Yeah, I don’t. I could say I spent the last three hours eating tacos, but I was actually driving a car. But that’s OK, I don’t care.”

Well done on Juan Pablo’s part! Of course, as NASCAR fans know, and particularly those that watched Sunday’s Martinsville race, Montoya is entirely focused on trying to win races. Apparently, the “taco” comment sounded pretty stupid to him, and he knows he has better things to concentrate on at present.

So whether Bob Griese’s statement received more attention than it deserved is open for debate. Yet once the ethnically insensitive comment was made, it appears that all concerned handled the situation properly.

Who among us have not wished that we had not said something and could be granted a do-over? That is what I believe is all Griese’s poorly chosen words amounted to; however, he wasted little time trying to “right the ship.” His apologies seemed sincere, and there is no reason for anyone to believe otherwise.

Faced with any number of options, ESPN then took a sensible and thoughtful approach to handling what could have become a huge nightmare for the sports broadcasting behemoth. Ignoring Griese’s flub was not an option, but terminating him – with more than two decades of reputable and competent broadcast history – would seemingly be too severe of a punishment. The one-week suspension struck a good balance between being reasonable and just.

Juan Pablo, too, should be commended for how he has handled the dustup. Instead of being sucked into a budding controversy, Montoya decided to entirely blow it off and go about his business of driving his Earnhardt Ganassi Racing No. 42 Chevrolet. Had he chosen to take Griese to task for the incident, rest assured, the situation would have become a much larger issue.

Because of the way it was all handled, once Bob Griese serves his suspension next week the “taco” incident will have run its course and be put to bed… probably for good. However, who will get the lion’s share of headlines after next week’s AMP Energy 500 next Sunday remains to be seen.

But we can hope that unlike Hamlin’s almost-accurate prediction following Martinsville, the winner at Talladega receives his fair share of media attention instead of being overshadowed by an incident, which while well-handled, was immediately regrettable for all involved.

And that’s my view from turn 5.

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