What do you call a sports league that wants to stick to just the sport? USA Today calls it “an insular oddity,” but the rest of us call it rare. Yesterday’s race in New Hampshire made news for the dog that didn’t bark:
NASCAR again proved to be an insular oddity in American sports culture on Sunday as Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series pre-race festivities at New Hampshire Motor Speedway were completely devoid of the type of national anthem protests that have permeated other professional sports.
There’s a good incentive for that equanimity. While NASCAR has not taken an official position on protests during the national anthem, some of the owners have threatened to fire anyone who won’t stand for the anthem. One owner offered to buy a bus ticket for anyone who didn’t like it:
“Get you a ride on a Greyhound bus when the national anthem is over,” team owner Richard Childress responded when asked what he would do if one of his employees protested during the anthem. “I told them anyone who works for me should respect the country we live in. So many people have gave their lives for it. This is America.”
Team owner Richard Petty, who won a record-tying seven championships as a driver, said he would fire any employee that didn’t stand for the anthem.
“Anybody that don’t stand up for that ought to be out of the country. Period,” Petty said. “If they don’t appreciate where they’re at … what got them where they’re at? The United States.”
Well, not so fast. Petty is part of the ownership, but not the majority owner of Richard Petty Motorsports. The majority owner, Andy Murstein, told ESPN that he wouldn’t fire someone who protested during the anthem, but that he’d have a few things to tell an employee who did:
“I would sit down with them and say it’s the wrong thing to do that, and many people, including myself, view it as an affront to our great country,” Murstein told ESPN in a text message. “If there is disenchantment towards the president or a few bad law enforcement officers, don’t have it cross over to all that is still good and right about our country.” …
Murstein said he understood the feelings of both Petty and Childress.
“They are all proud Americans who have lived through world wars and turbulent times,” Murstein told ESPN. “While I respect their thoughts — and personally, I think it’s the wrong thing to kneel — I wouldn’t fire someone for expressing their feelings.”
Despite many reports this morning, NASCAR hasn’t actually announced a policy on protests. At the moment, it’s up to each team’s ownership as to how such a protest would be handled — and even within the Petty team, it seems as though the policy hasn’t been carefully considered yet. That’s likely because it just has not come up yet at NASCAR, but after this weekend, we can probably bet that someone will push the edge.
Would firing an employee for political protest violate their First Amendment rights? As I wrote on Saturday, not at all. The NFL, for instance, has strict rules on speech in its workplaces, such as when it squelched demonstrations for fallen police officers and for 9/11 remembrances. Even the celebration rules are a form of limiting speech, and players can end up with big fines for violating those rules. Firing would be more drastic, and would run afoul of player contracts and the collective bargaining agreement with the NFL Players Association, but the First Amendment pertains to government censorship, not employer rules for workplaces.
The wisdom of such actions could very well be debated, but the NFL could crack down on this if they wanted to do so. Donald Trump made it nearly impossible for owners to make that choice, however, by turning it into a partisan fight. NASCAR owners are simply getting ahead of that curve (pardon the pun) by pre-empting the issue. That doesn’t make them “an insular oddity” as much as it makes them focused on their mission rather than on others’ agendas.
Addendum: Perhaps NASCAR’s owners figure, as Peter Ingemi wrote this weekend, that their fan base isn’t all that keen on having “a bunch of rich athletes talking about how oppressed they are by the country that made them rich.” Be sure to read his whole roundup.