I was reading the 2010 Ford 400 board (which has really taken on a life of its own, I must say). Normally, I tend to ignore the ?NASCAR basher vs. NASCAR apologists? debates which too often fill message boards and comment pages with the same arguments. That?s not to say I don?t care about the issue. Rather, I long ago made my thoughts clear on the issue, and I don?t feel like repeating myself over and over. I don?t think I?ve heard a new perspective on the issue for quite a while, so for me the jury?s in. And, by looking at the proposed points change that?s been reported, it appears as though NASCAR is going in a different direction, one that I?m quite skeptical of.
Instead, I try to focus on things that aren?t really discussed. Which is why the following post grabbed me by the collar.
?Just to let you guys know, Athlon Sports has their 2011 preview magazine out now. IMO, they have always had the best take on NASCAR. They talk about things almost every other NASCAR media source doesn't want to talk about. They have a section titled "What's wrong with Junior?" that is a good read.?
Now to understand why this statement had such a effect on me, let?s change the subject. A day after the Atlanta Falcons were whipped by the Green Bay Packers, Yahoo Sports ran a blog entitled ?Matt Ryan: Newest member of the 'Can't Win the Big Game' club?? Yes, after a grand total of TWO playoff games, Matt Ryan is now being labeled as a choker by some. Frankly, I find it a bit ridiculous to categorize a person with such few case studies.
The blog was significant to me because it was a perfect example of the powerful microscope in which stick-and-ball athletes perform in today?s sports. With information and opinions available in a nanosecond, one can easily form an opinion on an athlete, while also having the ability to share that opinion with anyone who will listen. And the super-sized contracts, endorsements, and sponsorship deals has put unprecedented pressure on athletes to win now and win often. I mean, would Fran Tarkenton have been able to leave his house after losing three Super Bowls?
Which finally brings me back to NASCAR, and the post which I?ve quoted. It?s a post which alludes to a noticeable difference between NASCAR and the stick-and-ball sports, especially in regards to how the media covers them.
I?m neither a Dale Earnhardt Jr. lover nor hater, but the Junior/Hendrick tandem has been a bigger flop than Phil Gramm?s presidential campaign. Anybody who follows NASCAR on a semi-regular basis can ascribe to this fact. And NASCAR message boards (include those at this website) contain post after post of arguments concerning the 88 team.
Yet the major media outlets that cover NASCAR are remarkably quiet on the issue. Yes, there are occasional discussions concerning the team?s performance, but even in those discussions, the issue is handled with kid gloves. Most statements are prefaced with statements like ?Junior is a tremendously talented driver,? or ?He hasn?t forgotten how to drive.? When it was reported that Rick Hendrick and Earnhardt were in negotiations to extend Earnhardt?s deal, which expires at the end of 2012, the media was for the most part silent.
This leads me to ask two questions. First, why does the NASCAR media exempt itself from asking harsh questions about things like driver performance? While I don?t have a solid answer, I do have a couple of theories.
For one thing, the way NASCAR is structured makes the environment more driver friendly. In the stick-and-ball world, fans root for teams, which relegates individual performers to the role of easily dispensable parts. In NASCAR, individual drivers take center-stage, and teams are more often built to best suit the drivers? needs.
Second (and this is where one may add the adjective ?conspiracy? to my theory), a sport which is so reliant on advertising dollars has its set of side-effects. DaleSrFanForever often makes it a point to acknowledge Home Depot?s status as ?Official Home Improvement Store of NASCAR? when discussing Joey Logano. Is it possible that the advertising dollars of PepsiCo, Wrangler, Nationwide, et. al. play the same role in determining what is actually said? I?ll go try on my tin foil hat.
Then there?s my second question. Is the fact that the media isn?t really tough on drivers a bad thing? To be fair, I do find it refreshing that drivers aren?t relentlessly picked apart, and are at the very least given an adequate opportunity to prove their worth. It gets a bit old when the media questions the job security of a coach after one game.
But I think there?s a bigger issue here. And that?s the notion that those who cover NASCAR avoid drawing their own conclusions. And while that can be acceptable in terms of driver performance, it is a bit more troubling when it?s applied to other issues facing the sport. On the issue of driver safety, the media only truly became active after the death of the sport?s biggest star.
It certainly isn?t prudent for the media to tear down the sport and its participants. But the media can have an active role in asking the tough questions, and challenge both assumptions and its readers and viewers.
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