When Dale Earnhardt Jr. says something, it’s different.
This week a firestorm broke out among sports media, and regular media, and really regular people. Politics and sports spilled across their neatly drawn lines and wrestled right in front of the general public. That’s why you heard President Donald Trump call any NFL player who kneels during the national anthem a “son of a bitch,” and that’s why you watched hundreds of NFL players do exactly that in response.
Only that wasn’t the end.
The situation then funneled to NASCAR after Trump tweeted that drivers “won’t put up with disrespecting” the flag. Team owners Richard Childress and Richard Petty backed him up, saying they’d fire drivers who protested during the anthem. Since then, drivers have ... said basically nothing.
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That tweet came a half hour after Trump’s tweet. And then after his own tweet, Earnhardt made a podcast further detailing his views. Then he answered more questions about his perspective on Friday.
“I’ve always stood for the anthem and I always will,” Earnhardt said, “but I’m not quick to rush to judge somebody who wants to do something different.”
Now understand, the NFL and NASCAR, at least demographically, couldn’t be more different. This saga has gone from pro football – where 70 percent of the players are African-American – to NASCAR, a predominantly white sport with predominantly white fans – and fans who support President Trump more than followers of perhaps any other sport.
Maybe Dale Earnhardt Jr. doesn’t say these things because he’s so popular. Maybe he’s so popular because he speaks his mind when other drivers might not.
Those aren’t claims. They’re facts. Trump even said so himself, back when he was still campaigning.
“If the people who like and watch NASCAR vote for Donald Trump, they can cancel the election right now,” Trump said in February 2016. “Nobody (else) can win.”
Then consider that at that same February rally, NASCAR chairman and CEO Brian France publicly endorsed Trump. It’s impossible not to view NASCAR’s statement on protesting – rather France’s statement with NASCAR’s seal – through that lens.
“Sports are a unifying influence in our society, bringing people of differing backgrounds and beliefs together,” the statement read. “Our respect for the national anthem has always been a hallmark of our prerace events. Thanks to the sacrifices of many, we live in a country of unparalleled freedoms and countless liberties, including the right to peacefully express one’s opinion.”
So at some level, it makes sense that drivers are reluctant to share their thoughts on the issue. When asked Friday, most were either prickly when asked about it or outright refused to answer. After all, if they disagree with Trump and Petty and Childress, why bother upsetting your fan base? Or at that, why risk being blackballed by key team owners?
Then there’s the conflict that actually has to do with racing. This is the most intense part of the schedule for drivers. It’s the playoffs. In eight races, a new champion will be crowned. Better to focus on racing and finishing the season strong, right?
Except that’s not Earnhardt.
Maybe it helps that he’s been NASCAR’s Most Popular Driver for 14 years running, that he carries a sort of do-no-wrong aura. Maybe it’s that he missed the playoffs, hasn’t won a race this year, and doesn’t have to worry about backlash during a championship push. Maybe it just that this is his final season and there are no on-the-track repercussions in his future if he offers his complete honesty.
Or maybe it’s the reverse.
Maybe Earnhardt doesn’t say these things because he’s so popular. Maybe he’s so popular because he speaks his mind when other drivers might not. Are the circumstances in his favor now? Sure, but that’s not the reason he’s been so comfortable discussing his stance over and over.
I don’t always claim to be right, but I think in transparency in conversation and compassion you can learn from others.
Dale Earnhardt Jr.
“I think the whole sport respects Richard Petty and Richard Childress for what they’ve accomplished and what they’ve done, but they speak for themselves,” Earnhardt said. “They don’t speak for the entire sport, I believe.”
Earnhardt is different because he understands what Colin Kaepernick and Julius Peppers and hundreds of other athletes are doing. He understands the difference between protesting the national anthem and protesting during the national anthem. That’s a difference that has been far too often misunderstood, or just flat out ignored.
Earnhardt said he stands for the flag because he respects the military, but also because he knows it is his right to do so. If he wanted, he could just as easily take a knee.
Other NASCAR drivers may realize that, too – and many do – but they are not comfortable articulating those opinions for risk of fan backlash, industry blackballing, distraction when racing – or some combination of the three.
“I have just always been pretty transparent. I don’t always claim to be right, but I think in transparency in conversation and compassion you can learn from others,” Earnhardt said. “There is only one way to sort of do that, and that is by communication and sharing. So I have always sort of been eager in a sense to know more and to learn more and to try to understand both sides, and so I think that is where that comes from.”
All that is why, when Dale Earnhardt Jr. says it, it’s different.