The bar is really, really low.
You don’t even have to have a measurable vertical leap to clear it.
But on Monday, NASCAR showed that it supports driver Bubba Wallace and didn’t cower to the potential backlash after President Donald Trump tweeted about Wallace, dredging up a two-week old story to target the circuit’s only Black driver.
In a statement circulated to media the racing body said, “We are proud to have Bubba Wallace in the NASCAR family and we commend his courage and leadership. NASCAR continues to stand tall with Bubba, our competitors and everyone who makes our sport welcoming and inclusive for all racing fans.”
Is it the strongest statement? No. It doesn’t mention Trump by name, doesn’t highlight the false statements within Trump’s tweet, and it’s only because of the timing of it that we can surmise it’s tied to the day’s events on social media. And it did take essentially a full business day for NASCAR to send the statement.
The fact that it was sent, however, is a bit of progress.
In 2017, it took the NFL days to respond to Trump calling Colin Kaepernick and other players who kneeled during the anthem “son of a bitch” at an event in Alabama, though by then the league was already in full blackballing mode when it came to the quarterback. It was only after players spoke out about the language used and expressions of team unity before the next week’s game that the league made a statement about players’ and teams’ response to the devastating hurricanes that hit Texas and Puerto Rico and “divisive comments” demonstrating an “unfortunate lack of respect.”
More recently, the New York Rangers could not have fumbled their response to an incident with top prospect K’Andre Miller more than they did. In early April, Miller took part in a Zoom chat with Rangers fans only to have one repeatedly use the n-word toward the 20-year old defenseman. Not only did Miller see the slur hundreds of times before comments were disabled, it took hours for a weak response that did nothing to show support for Miller.
This is some of the public relations history NASCAR is being judged against. See? A ridiculously low bar.
Sometimes though, any sign of progress is a bright spot. Or maybe some of us are just desperately searching for bright spots when it comes to sports teams and organizations showing support for their Black athletes and are happy to have found one, however small.
NASCAR took some lumps for its initial release last month after a noose was found in the garage stall assigned to Wallace at Talladega, and there’s an argument to be made that perhaps it jumped the gun in implying it was a targeted threat meant for Wallace when it was inexplicably a noose that had hung there for at least 8 months. Maybe that played a role in Monday’s delayed reaction.
Or perhaps NASCAR was waiting to see if Wallace responded and what tack he’d take if he did. It would have been understandable, even preferable, if Wallace had said nothing, letting the tweet filled with falsities go unacknowledged. Fires die out without oxygen.
Wallace did respond, with a note directed “to the next generation and little ones following my footsteps.”
Spelling out some of the truths many Black Americans learn as they grow up, he wrote in part, “Your words and actions will always be held to a higher standards than others. You have to be prepared for that. You will always have people testing you. ... I encourage you to keep your head high and walk proudly on the path you have chosen. ... Always deal with the hate being thrown at you with LOVE! Love over hate every day. Even when it’s hate from the POTUS [President of the United States].”
NASCAR retweeted Wallace’s message with the hashtag “WeStandwithBubba”; Richard Petty Motorsports, the team Wallace races for, tweeted a large No. 43, Wallace’s car, with “#IStandwithBubba” underneath; and Jimmie Johnson tweeted the same image.
Wallace owes no one an apology. It should go without saying at this point, but the noose wasn’t a “hoax.” One of Wallace’s crew members, also a Black man, had to discover the offensive so-called garage pull and report it to NASCAR. Prohibiting the Confederate flag at races should have been done long ago and in the immediate aftermath has helped NASCAR, not hurt it, evidenced in part by the nearly 50 percent viewership increase for the Brickyard 400 this year compared to last.
It’s a lot for a 26-year-old to shoulder. It’s a lot for any of us to shoulder. But Wallace is handling it with grace, and must be buoyed by the knowledge that publicly NASCAR has his back even as he is likely facing some vile, scary invective through social media and elsewhere.
He is the one that is owed an apology, for the burden that persists of wanting success as a Black man in your chosen field when others are rooting for you to fail for the audacity of trying.
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