Deep breath, America. We’ve done it. We’ve survived another election cycle, and I bet everyone is pretty stoked that we aren’t going to be bombarded with political ads and commentary everywhere we look for a little while and take a breather. Right? Well—maybe not.
I, like many other folks out there, did my civic duty. I was also inundated with the same articles and news stories as the rest of y’all. Which meant that a friend sent me a particular political ad featuring Darrell Waltrip stumping for Tennessee Republican Marsha Blackburn’s Senate run. “What do you think about it?”, my friend asked.
Well, folks. I had a lot to say and no particularly good way of putting anything into words.
I don’t bring up the Waltrip video to talk about his political views specifically—or Blackburn’s—but more to begin a discussion of sorts, because it got me thinking about the way we receive political messages from folks in motorsports, and sports as a whole, and how that influences how we react to them.
In sports, there seem to be two distinct camps regarding politics. Some folks want their sporting heroes to just stay quiet, to “stick to sports” as it’s so often said. Others, though, welcome the expression and almost encourage people in sports to openly discuss the big issues of the day. (Our colleagues over at Deadspin explore this topic a lot, both from readers who have strong feelings either way and in its coverage of ESPN, where detractors say not “sticking to sports” have sent ratings spiraling. In truth that probably has more to do with changing TV habits than anything else, but whatever.)
In football, it was Colin Kaepernick and other players taking a knee during the national anthem to call attention to police brutality aimed at people of color. There were people who loved it and people who hated it. It’s rare to find someone ambivalent—which seems to be a reflection of our national atmosphere generally these days.
For the sake of disclosure, I would like to mention that I’m one of the folks who encourages active political participation. I enjoy and appreciate being able to express my own opinions, so it would be disingenuous on my part to ask others to just shut up and be silent. That doesn’t mean I have to like what someone else is saying, but that’s free speech. We don’t all have to agree and we don’t all have to engage with someone we disagree with, but we are able to express our opinions.
Still, I found myself sort of uncomfortable with the Waltrip advertisement. It felt hypocritical at first, and the unease that I was also one of those people who like to live in their own political bubble with like-minded folks lingered with me for a few days. Perhaps it’s because this sort of thing doesn’t creep into racing all that often, at least compared to the NFL, though NASCAR has had plenty of issues along those lines in its history.
After some deep thinking while the results of the mid-term election were calculated, I felt like I’d come to a somewhat satisfying conclusion. I appreciate athletes with a large platform encouraging conversation about issues—whether I agree or disagree with what they’re saying. But something about specifically endorsing one candidate has never sat well with me. I don’t like political advertisements, no matter which party is making them. Your decision to vote shouldn’t be based on whoever has the sassiest 30-second commercial, or more accurately these days, who can lie the most bombastically. Seeing folks from motorsport appear in a video like that is frustrating for me. It just feels too easy. It’s not that I think Waltrip should just stick to sports—it’s that I think he should be opening up a discussion rather than endorsing someone directly.
And that doesn’t mean I (or anyone else) have to agree with him! I’d rather just see, y’know, someone talking about issues instead of being someone else’s spokesperson.
I don’t meant to just rag on NASCAR here. Given its deeply Southern roots it’s often aligned with conservative politics, so it’s really no surprise Waltrip is endorsing a GOP candidate. Partisanship isn’t the issue for me. I have similar gripes with Formula One for the series’ refusal to talk about politics. Every time F1 announces a new track in some lucrative dictatorship, a lot of folks raise concerns about human rights (I’m looking at you, Baku), oil issues, etc. The series never addresses it and haven’t addressed it historically—I mean, hell, they were happily racing in South Africa during apartheid, even when some famous figures in the sport were fighting against that.
To me it’s that frustrating to see the series head to a controversial country, but no one gets to talk about it candidly. The folks in NASCAR can get down and dirty in some political discussions on Twitter. You’re rarely ever going to get a soundbite of, say, Sebastian Vettel talking about his views on Brazil’s new president.
I’ve enjoyed Formula E. It’s a series dedicated to green energy which means they’re open to having eco-critical discussions that don’t rely on generalizations or the endorsement of a single candidate. (Of course, they’ve also signed a decade-long deal to open the season in Saudia Arabia, which is its own can of worms.) It’s why I talk so much about the role of women and minorities in racing. Politics affect just about every aspect of our lives in nuanced ways, whether we want to acknowledge it or not, and I appreciate conversations being opened to the discussion of that nuance.
But I want to turn the question out to the crowd, to see how other folks feel about the boundaries between politics and racing. Do you hate it or just not give a shit? Is there a level of blurred lines that makes you feel uncomfortable? Let’s have a civil discussion, folks. I want to see what everyone thinks.