It's been called "The SportsCenter Effect." It's when an athlete does something to draw attention to himself and it gets played repeatedly on ESPN. It's proven over time when the pro sports "heroes" do this it translates down into college play and, sadly, even high and elementary schools. The more outrageous or self-promoting the action, it seems, the better for TV. I would say basketball players have been the biggest offenders.
I have no reason to believe this hasn't happened to motorsports, too. One thing, from a Business of Racing standpoint, I've mentioned here many times is the unprofessional appearance that seemed to begin in Formula One with drivers walking around and doing interviews with their uniforms pulled down. Tens of millions of dollars in TV and photo exposure for sponsors has been lost. I guess some people think the underwear look is cool. It has made its way down the racing ladder, certainly in IndyCar, where Graham Rahal, for one, has been a chronic offender.
Another behavior that has evolved into a "norm" in NASCAR and other pro series is drivers getting out of their wrecked cars, walking down onto the track, and gesturing at whoever they think did them wrong. Remember Kurt Busch's "signal" to Jimmy Spencer in a years-ago Brickyard 400? Robby Gordon causing other drivers to dodge him on the backstretch at New Hampshire so he could throw his helmet at Michael Waltrip? Danica storming down a "hot" pit lane at Indianapolis to get into Ryan Briscoe's face? (She was cut-off-at-the-pass before reaching Briscoe.) I'm not picking on any of these drivers because they are among many, Many, Too Many examples of this.
This has made for, what the microphone-holders and producer-types like to call, "great TV." I feel sure this, also, has translated its way down and young drivers see these moments replayed over-and-over again and come to think it's OK conduct, it's acceptable, it's the way to go.
It was just a matter of time. Unfortunately, it happened in a local sprint car race, but the type of car doesn't matter. A 20-year-old was killed in a horrific way. TV and the Internet people couldn't seem to hit the "replay" button often enough. I could not help but notice the standards of acceptability have now been lowered to the point where high-profile cable networks decided it was OK to show it all. I remember when network executives decided in the days after Sept. 11, 2001, to stop replaying the video of people jumping from the World Trade Center.
But, I guess, anything goes these days. And that is disgusting.
I think this problem has been worse in NASCAR because that rich organization still refuses to field its own safety team. The sanction depends on local course workers. Just watch the video over the years. Some are more forceful than others in keeping angry drivers off the track. Back in CART, and today in IndyCar, the safety team members are paid by the sanction, are race officials, and have much more authority (and confidence) in restraining drivers.
Once again I see NASCAR as being behind-the-curve -- reactive instead of proactive -- in safety (remember it took months for it to mandate the HANS Device even after Dale Earnhardt's death.) Here's what should have been announced last Friday: Unless fuel is leaking or there is risk of a fire, or an actual fire or some other overriding concern, the driver must remain in the car. Penalty for first offense: $50,000 fine, loss of 50 driver and owner points, and a one-race suspension.
Whatever NASCAR and other organizations do, the ultimate responsibility is on the driver. Shame on the next one to angrily walk onto a "hot" track to vent anger. One of the first things I was taught as a child was not to walk out onto a street into on-coming traffic.
It's always dangerous to generalize. In this case, however, I believe it is completely fair to say the overall media coverage was atrocious. And a showcase for all that is wrong -- ugly -- disgusting -- about the so-called "new" media. I used Twitter ( @SpinDoctor500 ) a lot, so if you wish you can review my numerous call-outs on the media there. Terrible to say, but NASCAR "partners" ESPN and Fox (News Channel) were among the very worst. With all the NASCAR race telecast announcers under contract, the best Fox could do was Jim Gray? Jim Gray? Jim Gray! Absurd and, no surprise, he had absolutely no idea what he was talking about. Lead news anchor Shep Smith was another who didn't have a clue, saying the tragic accident involving Tony Stewart happened at "NASCAR track." On the ESPN front, while I'm not into boycotts because too often they are counterproductive, it is fair for anyone to decide not to do business with any company that pays the elitist and narrow-minded Colin Cowherd to be its spokesman.
When ESPN2 first came on, one of its signature shows was hosted by Jim Rome, who immediately caused a big controversy by disrespecting guest Jim Everett. Rome thought it was funny to be rude. It so happened a day or two after that 1993 episode, Rome's producer called me about having Nigel Mansell on the show. I rejected the idea out-of-hand, citing the Everett incident, and said I would not insult a driver I represented by placing him with rude Rome. I also told this to a very senior ESPN executive. This was a policy I kept in place until 2004, until I put Robby Gordon on Rome's radio show. I would suggest to all racing publicists, in any series, anywhere, to immediately reject any offer to place their driver on Cowherd's Cowbleep show.
There were so many bogus references to the accident as being in NASCAR, well, I guess the modern media couldn't figure out the difference between "Sprint Cup" and "Sprint Cars."
Which leads me to this: Just where was the vaunted NASCAR Integrated Marketing Communications group and its "engagement center" capability to monitor what is being said of the sanction? There were countless references to the accident as being at a NASCAR race or at a NASCAR track -- the Drudge Report's banner headline was "Horror at NASCAR". All wrong. This wasn't the time for some new age conjured-up PR theory. It was a time for old-fashioned shoe leather work -- like picking up the telephone and calling their high-level contacts at media organizations to get this corrected. It either wasn't done -- shame; or it wasn't effective -- Brian France please note. This was the worst crisis PR non-response since an agency advised Randy Bernard that IndyCar not say anything after Dan Wheldon's death. So, for more than a week, that void was filled with negative stories.
Finally, there was the statement issued by Jeremie Corcoran, promoter of Canandaigua Motorsports Park. It ended with this (bold emphasis mine):
"Lastly, I had to have our Facebook Page taken down early Sunday morning due to insensitive and hateful comments. I plead with you to be respectful so we can keep this page active for you to keep informed."
Every aspect of this terrible incident was truly troubling. And profoundly sad.
Those on Twitter ( @SpinDoctor500 ) saw this first last week: "Let's Race 2," my latest CompetitionPlus.com column --
[ more next week . . . ]