NASCAR is leveling up and opening its doors — The Undefeated

Two months ago, NASCAR was in an awful spot. A driver used the N-word on a live broadcast of an event, and per usual, there was no way to sugarcoat how nasty it was. He was summarily relieved of his driving duties and that was that. Some drivers came around to defend the offending character’s reputation, even if only as friends.

Then, nationally, we saw a revolution.

With few sports happening live, suddenly NASCAR was at the center of a debate about sports and protests, because it had to be. With American cities boiling over with emotion following the death of George Floyd in Minneapolis, we had quickly progressed from a grown-up version of the “times it’s not OK to use the N-word” lesson fit for probably elementary school (hint: never, nonblack people) to a full-blown doctoral thesis of a situation regarding how leagues should respond to acknowledgments that black lives do actually matter.

They didn’t disappoint. First, the league released a video that featured its drivers speaking directly to a camera, imploring their fans to understand that when it comes to understanding the plight of black folks in America, if you are not, the easiest method is to shut up.

Then, in Atlanta, Bubba Wallace — the NASCAR Cup Series’ only black driver — wore a Black Lives Matter shirt on the track before the race, and NASCAR president Steve Phelps spoke to everyone.

“The black community and all people of color have suffered for far too long. And it has taken far too long for us to hear their demands for change,” Phelps said Sunday. “Our sport must do better. Our country must do better. The time is now to listen. To understand and to stand against racism and racial injustice.”

Having already been inundated by “statement Twitter,” the symbolism here was a little different. That speech was given over the radios at the track and nationally televised. Then, they held a 30-second moment of silence. Then, a black NASCAR official took a knee and held a fist in the air during the invocation. OK, y’all. Insert whatever number of GIF reaction faces you want, here.

Not bad. We see you. But the reactions are all kinda the same: so, thanks … but. About that, yeah. All efforts to earnestly educate people about racism are kind of completely invalidated when folks are flying Confederate flags at tracks. There’s just no way around that.

If stand-up Americans whose literal family histories are deeply intertwined with the fabric of the Confederacy can renounce that flag, the rest of y’all rednecks masquerading as sociological historians of the South can too.

But you wouldn’t know that from NASCAR’s fan base online, who deluged the internet with slack-jawed takes about how they would be departing from the fan base, their loyalties to the sport forever tainted. Congratulations, you played yourselves.

Wallace upped the ante and went on television, signaling that it was time the league removed all images of Confederate flags from its functions. And days later, it did. They dropped the big joker. In an absolute showstopper of all statements, NASCAR made it plain.

“[Yada, yada, yada] … the display of the Confederate flag will be prohibited from all NASCAR events and properties.”

Hold up, what. Run that back. NASCAR. The league that represents the sport founded by working-class moonshiners in the South and has served as the last respectable bastion of integrity that still allows for that nonsense is actually banning it? Y’all. Calling it shocking would be a massive understatement.

It’s the lone reason that as a fan of NASCAR for 20 years, I refused to go to a track. I’d decided to get over that reservation this season before COVID-19 shut everything down, but symbolically, it’s almost impossible to explain how important this is on a basic human level. If you don’t let people fly the flag that’s most fairly and commonly associated with pro-slavery attitudes, then black folks might actually feel respected enough to support your product en masse. Funny how that works!

For sports fans of a certain age, it feels like a civil rights achievement. Because it is.

Now, not to be forgotten, NASCAR had announced earlier that it would allow silent protests during the national anthem, pretty big news, considering, beforehand. Let’s not forget that for the last four years, the NFL has been dealing with the effects of a decision to not allow that practice, nearly tearing the league apart to the point that its commissioner giving apologies from his basement was considered progress by some people.

Within a span of 10 weeks, NASCAR went from racial slurs in public from its own to removing the most historically racist image of this country’s history from all its events. That’s called: a business decision.

Oh, you want to leave the sport because the Confederate flag is coming down? That’s exactly the goal. Some people think that NBC leaned on the league, citing political tendencies. The idea being that when Fox held broadcast rights, this would have never happened. Whatever.

The days of good ‘ol boys building up their garages to become racing behemoths and wash, rinse and repeat are over. This thing is big business now. NASCAR wants the attention of Fortune 500 companies, not the people flying Stars and Bars on their RVs.

As much as it might make me feel safer at a race, or inspire a young driver to get into the sport, at this point, it’s just smart strategy. All you’ve got to do is look at who supports that cause. Many of them are the types who gave their support to the administration’s current economic policies.

NASCAR is leveling up and opening its doors. And just like the so many victims of discrimination over the years in America who “happen to be black,” the league is leaving behind its supporters who don’t have much to contribute. Except this time, most of them “happen to be white.”

Clinton Yates is a tastemaker at The Undefeated. He likes rap, rock, reggae, R&B, and remixes — in that order.

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