The last time I tackled this subject a little over a year ago, I ended up being labeled a racist because I used the word “thug” to describe Aaron Hernandez; who is not African-American, incidentally. I will try to choose my words more carefully so as to avoid the dreaded R-word. I do my best to stay away from politics on this site and social media. I don’t view this as a political rant, nor am I a racist in any sense of the word. More than a year later, it still stings that that word was applied to me. Instead, this is a commentary on today’s sports and how IndyCar drivers have managed to stay above the fray. There – that’s my disclaimer.
For the past couple of weeks, we have been inundated by stories from football that range from downright criminal and vicious behavior to sheer stupidity. The stories of Ray Rice, Greg Hardy and Adrian Peterson have been analyzed over and over – so I’ll spare you from rehashing those details. On Wednesday, Arizona Cardinals running back Jonathan Dwyer joined the September-to-forget in the NFL, when he was arrested on charges of assault and domestic abuse for head-butting his wife, thereby breaking her nose and punching her in the face the next day. He was also charged with beating his son with a shoe. Nice guy.
That was announced just hours after Heisman Trophy winner Jameis Winston, who also happens to be the quarterback for the No.1 team in college football, stood on a tabletop in the Florida State University campus Student Center and shouted an extremely offensive sexual phrase. That’s dumb on anyone’s part – but especially if you had just avoided prosecution for sexual assault allegations, just nine months ago. Add to that that he is not only the face of the football team, but also the face of the university and possibly the whole state of Florida.
Quick – name the Governor of Florida. Can’t do it? How about, who are their two Senators? Can you name the Mayor of Tallahassee? Thought not. But name the starting quarterback for the Florida State Seminoles. That’s right. That would be one Jameis Winston. The same guy that not only beat the sexual assault charge, but was since caught stealing $32 worth of crab legs from Publix this past spring. Of course, he said he forgot to pay for them. I always forget about those giant red spiny legs with claws, when I’m at the checkout line. Prior to that, he was caught shooting out campus windows with a pellet gun.
NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell probably welcomed the Winston story, since it sort of took the spotlight off of his league. But then the Dwyer story broke. What in the world is going on here? These stories have become a daily thing. It’s as if no one is noticing that the Saints and Colts are 0-2, while the Texans are a surprising 2-0. I have an idea those three will start to turn around this weekend, but no one wants to talk about that. Certainly not Anheuser-Busch InBev. The folks at Budweiser and Bud Light have gotten an earful about their $1.2 billion (that’s Billion – with a B) deal to support a league that gives the impression that they support players who punch women and beat children. Anheuser-Busch went public with their concerns when Adrian Peterson was set to return this weekend. When $1.2 billion speaks, the NFL listens.
Will I watch the NFL this weekend? Of course I will, along with practically everyone else in their core audience – and the NFL knows that. The NFL knows that things would have to get a lot worse for their die-hards to not tune in each week. But Budweiser knows many will tune in as well. They know that people seeing their product supporting a league where thug-like behavior is permissible, is unacceptable.
So these past couple of weeks, we’ve seen NFL officials, team General Managers and coaches all say one thing and then do another – only to backtrack once the league was threatened to get hit where it hurts – their wallets. The hypocrisy was comical and nauseating to watch – all at the same time. Meanwhile the games go on.
As I did in the midst of the Aaron Hernandez mess last summer, I again caught myself thanking my lucky stars that I follow the Verizon IndyCar Series. The drivers are like a breath of fresh air, after what we’ve had to endure the past couple of weeks. In the past five years, what has been the most controversial action that an IndyCar driver has been caught up in? To my recollection, it was either the “double-bird” salute by Will Power or Helio Castroneves trying to choke Charles Burns, who may have been about four times Helio’s size. Both of those incidents brought chuckles more than anything else, although both were promptly fined by the series.
By nature, race car drivers are not saints. If you have seen the movie Rush, which examines the 1976 rivalry between Formula One drivers James Hunt and Niki Lauda, you know that Hunt was much more reckless off the track than on it. Growing up in the sixties as I did, the two occupations that exuded a glamorous lifestyle were astronauts and race car drivers. I won’t name names, but several of my heroes from the sixties were not quite as admirable away from the launching pad or the track as they were on it.
Over time, that has changed. Women are now allowed in the pits and garages. Drivers are much more family-oriented than when I was growing up. It is hard to find Ryan Hunter-Reay at the track, when his wife Beccy and their son Ryden are not there with him. The first person to greet Tony Kanaan in victory lane at Fontana last month, was his wife Lauren – when he promptly kissed her belly in announcing to the world that they are expecting.
Ed Carpenter always has Heather and their children by his side. Helio is never far from his longtime girlfriend Adriana and their daughter Mikaella. Juan Montoya now has a family that is usually with him. Will Power has no children, but Liz is right there in the pits, cheering him on at every race. I could go on and on, but you get the point. What you don’t see are headlines documenting foolish or criminal behavior from the current group of IndyCar drivers.
Are these drivers perfect? No. Al Unser, Jr. has had his demons arise on a couple of occasions. His battle with alcoholism eventually cost him his ride with Marlboro Team Penske, got him suspended for a few IRL races, while driving for Tom Kelley and recently caused him to lose his job inside Race Control. I am a big Al Jr. fan and hope that he can get his life in order for good. Salt Walther is another driver who never could shake his demons and died at a relatively early age a couple of years ago. The Whittington brothers from the eighties raised more than a few eyebrows with their off-track activities. Dale, the youngest, died of a drug overdose in 2003. Then there was the tax evasion trial where Helio Castroneves was acquitted in 2009.
There are a few more examples of poor behavior among IndyCar drivers, but you have to really dig for them. They aren’t splattered in headlines on a daily basis, like we’re seeing in the NFL and other professional sports, but they do exist.
Are IndyCar drivers that much better than other professional athletes? Some say yes, some say otherwise. Skeptics say that they are just as slimy, but no one follows IndyCar so we never hear about it. I disagree. The stories just aren’t there, for the most part. I might agree with those that say that the threat of losing sponsorship keeps them in line. IndyCar rides are precious and limited. Only a complete idiot would misbehave when the consequence is having a sponsor dump you.
The thing is, I touched on the key word just then – consequence. IndyCar drivers live with the threat of consequences every day. The consequence of choosing the wrong line in a turn, the consequence of getting too close to a competitor or coming into the pits too fast; these are all consequences that IndyCar drivers must deal with. They also have to live with the consequences of poor decisions off the track – from their fans, their car owner and their sponsors.
It wasn’t until Anheuser-Busch stepped up and told the NFL to get their house in order that there was any real action on the league’s part. Even then – what did the teams do? They took advantage of a little known rule that is untouchable by the Player’s Association – the Exempt/Commissioner’s Permission List that can be used in unusual circumstances. Essentially, the player is inactive but doesn’t count against the 53-man roster. But here’s the rub – the player is still paid in full.
So Jonathan Dwyer can head-butt his wife and break her nose, punch her in the face the next day and be given time off with pay. He has gotten a paid vacation from practice, workouts and games – while the legal process sorts itself out. To me, that is not a consequence with much teeth in it. It’s the same in college. What was the punishment for Jameis Winston after he brazenly mocked sex acts in public less than a year away from having sexual assault charges against him dropped in a seemingly endless parade of stupid stunts? He will miss the first half of tomorrow’s game against Clemson.
When actions have consequences, then – and only then – will athletes take notice and straighten up. The bad thing is, most of the NFL players are good guys. But the few knuckleheads we are reading about on a daily basis are tarnishing the whole lot of them.
Say what you will about IndyCar as an organization. They do a lot of things that make us scratch our collective heads. But the drivers that we watch strap themselves into the cockpit and do amazing things at 230 mph, also lead their lives the way they’re supposed to. They make me proud to be a fan.