Anyone who thought that guns were the problem with the National Rifle Association (NRA) sponsoring Saturday's NASCAR race at the Texas Motor Speedway completely missed the point.
Having NRA as a title sponsor the April 12 race was not about being pro-gun or anti-gun, or gun neutral for that matter. It was about NASCAR wrongly allowing politics to invade the sport, an action that places its teams, drivers, and sponsors in a no-win situation. Although the deal was between the venue and the NRA, NASCAR can veto sponsorships as part of its promoter agreement with the track. In this case, NASCAR should have recognized the political implications of the sponsorship and nixed the NRA’s involvement with the sport.
Oddly, when asked about the gun lobbyist being the title sponsor of Saturday's race in Texas, NASCAR spokesman David Higdon told reporters that the series was about entertainment, not politics, and seemed to indicate that those debates don't belong at a racetrack.
NASCAR's drivers seemed to agree. On Friday, several interview sessions slated for the media centre were actually held outside the room, so the backdrop would not be a large banner in the room with NRA logos displayed prominently.
2012 Cup champion Brad Keselowski summed up the situation last Thursday as the drivers arrived in Fort Worth.
“Well, I can’t speak for everybody, but I can speak for myself in saying that I would really rather stay out of politics and just race — that is certainly not the situation though," he said.
"Sometimes we get thrown into it whether we want to or not. I think the best thing is just to acknowledge it and try to move on with it. For me, I really just wish [fellow driver] Tony Stewart or someone would throw a helmet or a punch so it wouldn’t be a story."
It also wouldn't have been a story had NASCAR used some sound judgment and refused to allow the sponsorship in light of a heated gun control debate in the U.S. sparked by the Dec. 14, 2012 massacre of 20 young students and six staff at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Conn.
The NRA has been front and centre in the fray, with its chief executive Wayne LaPierre issuing several controversial statements in relation to the Sandy Hook gun deaths. And while early indications are that the NRA sponsorship didn't bother hardcore NASCAR followers at the Texas Motor Speedway, it might cause more than a bit of a second thought among casual fans when it's time to watch a Cup race. So, stepping into the gun control debate can only do harm to the series from a business perspective as it tries to reverse declining attendance and TV numbers.
Not to mention that opening title sponsorship doors to political lobby groups is a proverbial can of worms. Seriously, does anyone really want to see the "Planned Parenthood Pro-Choice 500" or the "Encourage Illegal Immigrant Self-Deportation 400."
The bottom line is that drivers shouldn’t be asked to comment on political topics like this one, which five-time NASCAR Cup champion Jimmie Johnson called "clearly a sensitive subject."
Unfortunately, NASCAR isn't alone in its tone deaf decision-making. Formula One is going down that road again in Bahrain as it arrives in this week. The Persian Gulf state will host a second grand prix despite continuing anti-government protests that began two years ago. About 100 people have been killed and 3,000 injured since the protests started in February 2011. The 2011 race was cancelled due to the violence, but it went on last year despite ongoing demonstrations. While dismissed as factor in the decision to race in Bahrain, there is plenty of Gulf money in F1 these days.
Although racing in Bahrain during unrest has inherent risk, Formula One made a huge blunder by allowing by the Bahraini authorities to co-opt the grand prix for political gain last year. Last year’s race was promoted under a politically charged "UniF1ed" (unified) slogan designed to show how the government would use F1 to bring people together and to down play the protests raging in Bahrain's streets. That action put the race clearly in the protesters' sights and four Force India team members almost paid the price when a Molotov Cocktail exploded near their van as they made their way from the circuit to their hotel on Wednesday night before the grand prix.
Although it may be a distant memory for some, the fact that the sport's governing Fédération Internationale de l'Automobile (FIA) allowed F1 to be used for political purposes means protesters will once again see the Bahrain Grand Prix as a government symbol. That fact was punctuated by a car bomb exploding Sunday night in the capital, Manama. There will likely also be a repeat of the government measures seen in 2012, such as pre-emptive arrests and corralling protesters in certain areas, to make sure everything goes off without a hitch and the world sees a mostly trouble-free event.
Now, some argue that racing in a repressive Bahrain is no different than the sport going to human-rights challenged China for the grand prix in Shanghai last Sunday. It may be subtle, but the difference is that the government of China uses F1 as a general marketing tool for things like tourism and business development, while Bahrain's "UniF1ed" slogan was explicitly intended to use its grand prix to achieve a specific political end.
There is also a precedent here after Turkish Grand Prix organizers were fined $5-million for allowing a politician linked to the self-declared Republic of Northern Cyprus hand out the winner's trophy at its 2006 grand prix. A Mediterranean island, Cyprus has been disputed by Greeks and Turks since it gained independence in 50 years ago.
Some commentators have argued that both sides in Bahrain used last year's race to relay their messages to the world, which means that the propaganda advantage is split. That's faulty logic at best, because both got coverage long before a few F1 reporters filed reports on the events surrounding the grand prix in Bahrain, and those messages would have gotten out had F1 not showed up. Instead, we have an overtly politicized F1 race that compromises the FIA's neutrality, the sport, and all of its participants.
The problem here for both NASCAR and F1 isn't guns or protests, but that they allowed themselves to be pulled into a political fray. For its part, NASCAR looks like it is tone deaf to the gun-related deaths of schoolchildren, while F1 comes away seeming like it has no problem with a government brutalizing its citizens so the show can go on.
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