Is NASCAR going to ban political sponsorships?
According to the Sports Business Journal, the sanctioning body is in the “early stages” of a discussion surrounding a ban on political sponsorships. The reported discussion — a NASCAR spokesperson declined to comment to Yahoo Sports about the story — comes in the wake of a President Donald Trump-supporting political action committee’s purchase of a nine-race sponsorship on Corey LaJoie’s No. 32 car.
The car, which first ran at Indianapolis and was caught in a pit road crash early in the race, is red, white, and blue and prominently features Trump’s last name on the hood and sides.
The No. 32 car is far from the first to run a paint scheme supporting a political candidate. NASCAR has long allowed campaigns to buy ad space on cars and teams to put their preferred candidate’s name on their vehicles. There were multiple Trump-supporting vehicles in 2016 ahead of the last presidential election. And, somewhat infamously, Kirk Shelmerdine got a letter of admonishment from the Federal Election Commission after running a car with a Bush-Cheney sticker in 2004.
Those are just recent examples too.
So why would NASCAR be having these reported discussions now? Well, it could have something to do with Trump. The president attacked NASCAR and Bubba Wallace in a tweet on Monday. He baselessly alleged Wallace of perpetrating a “hoax” at Talladega and also snuck in an admonishment of NASCAR’s decision to ban the Confederate flag.
Trump’s tweet seemingly came out of nowhere. It was sent nearly two weeks after federal investigators said no hate crime charges would be filed regarding the noose in Wallace’s garage stall and 11 days after NASCAR explained its investigative actions after the noose was discovered by one of Wallace’s crew members.
That Talladega race was the first at the track and in Alabama since NASCAR had banned fans from flying the Confederate flag at its races on June 10. Later that evening, Wallace drove a car supporting the Black Lives Matter movement for racial equality at Martinsville.
The SBJ article provides no specifics about what a NASCAR ban on political sponsorships could entail. But it curiously mentions both Wallace and LaJoie’s cars as equal examples of political ones.
Wallace’s car supported the Black Lives Matter movement as a whole and not specifically the organization of the same name. The car was also unsponsored entering the race so Wallace and his Richard Petty Motorsports team made the decision to support the movement for racial equality in lieu of a blank car.
It also raced three days after NASCAR president Steve Phelps made a pre-race speech at Atlanta noting that both NASCAR and society as a whole had more work to do to combat racial injustice. The statement Wallace’s car made at Martinsville was simply a louder extension of the one that Phelps delivered at Atlanta. Why would NASCAR ban the expression of its own sentiments?
LaJoie’s car, meanwhile, is funded by at least $350,000 per FEC filing records. While the PAC funding the car said in a statement that it has a goal of driving voter registration with the sponsorship, that voter registration push is not nearly as visible as Trump’s name on the car.
The SBJ report also notes how “industry execs, including those from teams, are getting increasingly uneasy about how much the sport has been politicized.” But NASCAR was also politicized in February when it lavishly hosted Trump ahead of the Daytona 500 and allowed him to lead the field on a pace lap in the presidential limo.
Did that unease exist in February when NASCAR warmly embraced Trump like it had other Republican presidents in the past? Or just when NASCAR started to get a lot of mainstream attention because of the Talladega discovery and Trump’s tweet? It’s hypocritical to have selective unease about politicization.
NASCAR has every right to prohibit specific products and companies from advertising cars and routinely exercises that right. There’s a reason you don’t see CBD sponsorships on NASCAR cars. But a broad political ban that would include both explicit advertisements for political candidates and messages that may have some inherent political meaning or connection would be an incredibly difficult one to police fairly. It’s impossible to make a sport or series apolitical.
If NASCAR does want to enact some sort of ban, a prohibition of all political campaigns and political action committees explicitly supporting specific candidates would be a fair rule. After LaJoie’s current sponsorship runs out, of course. But any broader rule than that would be a recipe for disaster.
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Nick Bromberg is a writer for Yahoo Sports.
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