Silence Is Golden…And Now Mandatory
Just when you thought it was again fun to be a fan of the Verizon IndyCar Series, along comes the infamous Rule 9.3.8. The series was just coming off of three outstanding races featuring three winners that have not been frequent visitors to victory lane recently. Television ratings on NBCSN were showing significant increases and dialogue was about action on the track instead of inaction at IndyCar headquarters.
Well, we can’t have any of that. How dare this series pick up any positive momentum this summer?
A couple of weeks ago on a conference call, IndyCar CEO Mark Miles alluded to the fact that he would be addressing drivers who publically criticized the series. There was nothing in place to keep drivers and team-members from sabotaging the series by spouting their own personal agenda whenever a microphone was put in front of them. This was in response to a few drivers and high-ranking team-members in the aftermath of the Fontana race, where many in the series felt that IndyCar management failed to listen to their pleas to curtail what they felt was pack racing, before the race started.
I get that. I really do. It sends the wrong signal to potential fans and potential sponsors that have just watched this great race, then they hear everyone saying publically that IndyCar management is inept. Whether they are or not is debatable, but those type of comments need to remain in-house.
I’ll reference my first wife, when my son was around the age of five. Whenever he would misbehave (which was quite often), his mother would step in and tell me in front of him that no discipline was necessary. She undermined the message I was trying to send to him, thereby making me look like the bad guy while she pandered to him to be the more popular parent in his eyes. Later on, I would always ask her to confront me behind closed doors if she didn’t agree with me. I maintained we had to present a united front to him in order to be effective parents. She never would and consequently, he ended up being more than the average handful in later years. Today, he acknowledges that I was right to try to enforce the message, but being a kid – he took advantage of her stance whenever possible.
Is this a simplistic example? Maybe. But it sends the wrong message when the participants of an event moan and gripe about it publically. So I really get what Mark Miles is trying to do. But there is a flip-side to this viewpoint. Drivers claim that they tried to keep it in-house and were ignored. Therefore, the next step was to use the media as a sounding board to get the attention of series officials. And the way this was handled on Tuesday is a case study in how NOT to do something.
Before I go further and in case you’ve not heard of the new edict handed down on Tuesday, Rule 9.3.8 reads:
"Competitors must be respectful, professional, fair and courteous to others. At all times, Competitors must not, attempt to, or engage in conduct or statements that in the judgment of INDYCAR:
a) Threatens or denigrates any Official, fellow Competitor or the INDYCAR brand;
b) Calls into question the integrity or legitimacy of the Rules or their application, construction or interpretation;
c) Denigrates the IndyCar Series racing schedule or Event(s);
d) Threatens or denigrates any INDYCAR business relationship, including those with sponsors or broadcasters;
e) Otherwise threatens the integrity, reputation or public confidence of the sport, INDYCAR, or IndyCar Series."
So why do I say that this was handled poorly? Surely, IndyCar knew that this was not going to be received well. If they didn’t, they are more inept than fans are already giving them credit for. But instead of having Miles or Derrick Walker announce this addition to the rulebook in a press conference, where everyone heard this at once and would be able to ask questions for clarification; this was sent in memo form to the teams. Of course, one of the teams leaked it to Marshall Pruett of Racer.com and it spread from there.
I’ve heard the argument that every sport has such a rule in place and it was high time that IndyCar did too. That’s one of the many problems with this rule. There was already a rule in place regarding conduct detrimental to racing that included language that covered driver conduct in and out of the car. Like most of the IndyCar rulebook, there was enough gray area in its wording to cover this anyway. But Miles apparently felt it wasn’t enough.
Political Correctness is a hot-topic lately. Not to go off on any political tangent, but it seems that there is always someone, somewhere that can and will take offense to almost anything these days. It’s amazing how some comments can be interpreted as offensive or hurtful. To me, that is what should be causing the most outrage. What some may consider a refreshingly candid comment, the series may interpret as a denigrating comment toward a fellow competitor or the series.
One of the biggest complaints about NASCAR is that the personality of the drivers has been zapped and they all now sound like sponsor-hawking automatons. The personality of a lot of IndyCar drivers is their selling point. Unfortunately, this new rule has the potential to neuter the drivers and make them sound as exciting as a forty-pound bag of fertilizer.
Say what you will about social media, but when news of this rule came out – the buzz on Twitter was fascinating, as well as humorous.
But the humor was dealing with an all-too serious subject – and that was what was Mark Miles thinking? It didn’t take too long for him to get the message. Within a few hours, Miles issued a statement trying to explain the meaning behind the statement, which read:
"This rule is not a gag order. We recognize that controversy, tension and drama all have a place in motorsport today. Our drivers are competitors and we have no interest in eliminating the emotion and passion that is an integral part of our sport – or limit the content for media covering INDYCAR. As an example, some have speculated that the exchange between Ed Carpenter and Sage Karam last Saturday at Iowa Speedway would result in penalty under this new rule – that is not the case. We feel exchanges of that manner do not cross the line and instead highlight the intensity of Verizon IndyCar Series competition. We feel it’s our responsibility to distinguish between irresponsible statements that damage the sport or its competitors and the intense competitive nature of the series. This rule is to ensure we have authority to act when we feel it is required."
I’m no lawyer, but the wording of the rule sure sounded like a gag order to me. When words like must not and denigrate are used in conjunction with fair, courteous and respectful; it sounds to me like there is a lot of room for interpretation for Miles or the series to punish someone who says something they don’t agree with or not like the way they said it.
I’m also wondering how far reaching this rule is. Does it pertain to media? Didn’t Tony George get Robin Miller fired form a local TV gig in Indianapolis mainly because he didn’t like what he was saying about him? If it pertains to media, how about bloggers? I don’t really get too outrageous here, but I have been known to speak my mind. If I say something that is interpreted as denigrating “the INDYCAR brand”; I can’t get fired from here but I suppose I can have my media credentials revoked.
Chip Ganassi humorously tweeted the other day that he was hiring Donald Trump as an IndyCar driver, wondering how he would react to Rule 9.3.8. The real question is, how will Mark Miles react to someone that speaks his or her mind as freely and openly as Mr. Trump? I don’t talk politics here, but like him or hate him and for better or worse – Donald Trump has stirred things up in the political arena and gotten people talking about a political race that has otherwise been yawn-inducing, thus far.
America may or may not need Trump’s type of bluntness. That’s a topic for another forum. But the Verizon IndyCar Series could sure use it. As I said on Wednesday, Sage Karam could be just what the doctor ordered for IndyCar. While America may or may not benefit from such a polarizing figure, IndyCar sure needs one. In sports, it’s healthy to have enemies. The Celtics needed the Lakers. The Colts need the Patriots. Ohio State needs Michigan.
The Verizon IndyCar Series has been touting their farcical #IndyRivals all season long. Will Rule 9.3.8 squelch their own marketing campaign, just as they may actually be growing a driver that a lot of people could love to hate? The potential is certainly there.
The last sentence in the Mark Miles statement is the one I don’t like: This rule is to ensure we have authority to act when we feel it is required. There is no black or white in this rule. There are too many open-ended interpretations that can come from it. Talk about a slippery slope? This one is treacherous.
As funny as I found Will Power’s double-bird salute at New Hampshire, I thought his punishment was justified. You can’t do that towards race-officials. You just can’t. But had he gone on television reasonably stating his objections against re-starting that race, I would have had no problem with it. But would Mark Miles? Could that be defined as calling into question the integrity of the rules or the officials? It very well could under this new rule. That last sentence pretty well gives the series carte blanch to do whatever they choose.
And just what exactly are the punishments? What are the consequences for violating Rule 9.3.8? Does Dean Vernon Wormer put them on double-secret probation? Maybe it’s another Wednesday afternoon fine. Worst yet, they could deduct points. I’d hate to see a championship lost because someone extended their middle-finger.
Can you imagine this rule being in place during another time? Aside from his outstanding driving ability, it was his fiery temper that made AJ Foyt famous. Parnelli Jones punched Eddie Sachs the day after winning the 1963 Indianapolis 500 because he wouldn’t shut up. Bobby Unser was just as quick with his tongue as he was in the car. How legendary would these drivers have been had they been silenced by a silly rule telling them they must be courteous and respectful to their fellow competitors at all times? I laugh thinking about it.
Once again, Mark Miles has demonstrated how disconnected he is from the fans of this sport. This isn’t the sport of tennis that he came from, where chair umpires get glared at and fans whistle when they disagree with something. Tempers explode in tennis where the worst thing that happens is when an umpire incorrectly judges a ball to be out. Tempers escalate in racing because someone could possibly lose their life when something goes wrong. The stakes are a lot higher and emotions are understandably a lot more frayed in this sport.
I’ve seen it said where Mark Miles is trying to strip driver’s personalities so that they will be as dull as he is. That may be a little harsh, but I remember that former CEO Randy Bernard saw the value of drivers speaking their mind and showing their true personalities. Of course, he recognized that the drivers were the stars. I’m not quite sure what Mark Miles considers the star of this series, but it’s obvious that a driver showing passion and emotion is no longer valued.
From his bunker, Miles couldn’t read the signs that fans were finally happy with most things IndyCar. For the past month, the racing had been fantastic. Attendance appeared to be up at Milwaukee and Iowa and NBCSN was getting record audiences for IndyCar broadcasts. That disconnect from fans didn’t allow Miles to see what it was that the fans liked. He only knew that he didn’t care for what he heard from a few drivers being honest and speaking their minds. I didn’t necessarily agree with what all of them were saying, but I appreciated their candor and certainly respected their opinions. Now we’ll only be treated to sterile and filtered sound bites from drivers too afraid to speak their mind out of fear that someone somewhere might be offended somehow and that they will pay the price.
How boring this great series will become!