Though NASCAR is within its rights to fine Denny Hamlin, Liam Day argues there’s a not so pleasant whiff about all of it.
NASCAR fined Denny Hamlin $25,000 after the Sprint Cup Series event at Phoenix International Raceway last Sunday for supposedly disparaging comments he made about the new Generation 6 car he was driving.
I say supposedly because here is the quote, “”I don’t want to be the pessimist, but it did not race as good as our generation five cars. This is more like what the generation five was at the beginning. The teams hadn’t figured out how to get the aero balance right. Right now, you just run single-file and you cannot get around the guy in front of you.” Inflammatory, I know.
Robin Pemberton, NASCAR’s Vice President of Competition, at a press conference after Hamlin made his statement, talked about the latitude NASCAR gives drivers to speak their minds, but emphasized that there is a line. “You can’t slam the racing. You can’t slam the product. That’s where it crosses the line.”
Of course, NASCAR’s response to Hamlin’s comments were primed by the two previous fines the driver has received. NASCAR officials were probably quicker to pull the trigger with him than they might have been with another driver, but, still, if Hamlin’s quote crosses a line, then the latitude Pemberton talked about at his press conference is considerably narrower than he would have us believe.
On Thursday Hamlin doubled down. He said in an interview and then reiterated on Twitter that he would not pay the $25,000. He would take a suspension, but that paying a fine for speaking his opinion angered him. His tweet read, “Trust me, this is not about the money.. It’s much deeper.”
Is he right?
On NASCAR’s side of the argument is the fact that drivers are, by extension, employees and, just as it is likely that if I went on Facebook and bashed my employer I would risk losing my job, Hamlin does not have the right to criticize his employer publicly, at least not without being willing to risk the consequences.
Yes, Hamlin is employed by his team, but his team competes in NASCAR and it is in competing that owners, drivers, and crew make money. NASCAR is not an association of, say, manufacturers who earn their profit in a competitive market separate from the association they comprise. If Hamlin wants the freedom to speak his mind about competition, then he needs to start his own series.
On the other hand, apart from the mildness of Hamlin’s comments, is it right for NASCAR, or any other professional sports league for that matter, to require its drivers or players to speak with the press after competition and then circumscribe what they can say?
Why would they even want to? The result is the mind-numbingly dull charades that pass for post-race or post-game interviews in this day and age. As Vito Boyle pointed out in his tongue-in-cheek assessment of the evolution of his sports fantasy last month on The Good Men Project, there is little joy to be found in the cliche.
I am reminded of the scene in Bull Durham when Kevin Costner’s Crash Davis teaches Tim Robbins’ Nuke LaLoosh about cliches: ‘I’m taking ’em one game at a time.’ ‘I’m just happy to help the team.’ ‘Yada, yada, yada.’ ‘Blah, blah, blah.’
I would even go so far as to say there is a whiff of the Soviet about all of this. In his essay Living in Truth, Vaclav Havel, former dissident and later Czech president, talks about the signs expressing solidarity with the workers Prague shopkeepers were required to display in their windows. If they did not, they ran the risk of running afoul of the Communist Party’s apparatus. The signs themselves became meaningless because they did not express genuine solidarity.
The same way, NASCAR representatives say that criticizing competition, criticizing the product, is crossing a line. They believe they are protecting the product. But can anyone now really believe comments another driver might offer in praise of the Generation 6 car? How are we not to assume that he or she is only offering the praise to appease NASCAR’s apparatus?
As Yahoo reported just yesterday, “[T]here are already signs that drivers have gotten the message. Asked about the Gen 6 car on Thursday, Clint Bowyer smiled and said, ‘It’s good. The car is good. Everything is very, very good.'”
Yeah, sure it is. Perhaps Bill Belichick is right after all. Just skip the post-game interview altogether and be done with the whole damn farce.
AP Photo/Mark Humphrey