Words Matter

When the racing industry was shut down and drivers of all disciplines began racing online, it seemed like it would be a nice diversion to pass the time before we actually got to see cars back on track, which hopefully happens early this summer.

Hopefully.

It has ended up becoming a lot more than that. IndyCar and NASCAR are both competing in sponsored cars on nationally televised broadcasts that include spotters, engineers and strategists. It was only natural, competitive people compete, no matter the stakes. In fact, sometimes bragging rights are the best stakes of all.

The races have been fun and exciting, and thanks to various social media platforms that allow us to hear dialogue and reactions from drivers, it’s given us a little bit of an insight into their personalities, which I think is a great way for more fan engagement.

I enjoyed all of it, but I also realized that there was a good chance at some point someone was gonna slip and say something that wasn’t intended for public consumption.

Sunday night, NASCAR driver Kyle Larson became that someone, dropping a racial slur into an open mic during an iRacing event at Monza.

We all know what has happened in the backlash since: he’s received suspensions from both his team and sanctioning body, he has lost sponsorship from Chevrolet, McDonald’s and Credit One, and there will probably be more fallout in the days ahead.

Everyone’s PR, HR and legal teams have put together statements, and the damage control has begun. Where the free-fall ends, no one knows.

I’m not going to rail on Larson — at least not all that much. I listened to the audio a handful of times, and like others, was more caught by surprise by how easily it rolled off of his tongue. So, for him to say “that isn’t me” or “that’s not how I was raised”, that may be so, but it sounded like that word flows from his mouth more than he’d care to admit.

Although I shouldn’t be surprised, I hear lots of people his age use that word in regular conversation when referring to each other. It’s part of the vocabulary for a lot of people, young and old.

So it’s not really the fact he said it, it’s the environment in which he said it. Like many people, I have a little bit of a swearing problem. I swear, a lot, and like Ralphie’s dad in A Christmas Story, I weave the F-word effortlessly in a colorful tapestry more than I care to admit.

But here’s the thing: in a work environment, I rarely if ever use profanity. It’s not professional and I know that people who are outside of my family and friends may find it offensive. I slip up sometimes, but part of my own personal brand is to be professional and show integrity. When I go places where my brand is on display, such as when I cover a game, I always make sure to dress well and treat others with respect.

My writing speaks for itself, but if I don’t present myself the way I do, no one will notice what I write. I feel that happened in the recent past, and it’s not going to happen again.

That’s how I want to project myself when I’m on the job. When I’m at home, it’s sleeping until noon and jeans and hoodies, but when I am representing someone or something, I want to come across as professionally as possible, especially given the people I am doing that for I might want to work for someday.

Hello NIU Athletics, are you listening?

That’s not saying I’m perfect, because there were times over last summer I did things that were really off-brand for me. I recommitted myself to being at my best since then, and am happier for doing it. My writing has improved as well.

One thing I’ve learned about athletes is that they are like the rest of us, there is a person and a persona. For some of them, both match up perfectly, they are the same person no matter the situation they find themselves in. They are the minority, for the rest of them, who they are in private and who they are in public are two different things.

But for everyone that falls anywhere on that spectrum, the one thing they have to realize is that when they are in the public forum, their persona, and most importantly their brand, is on display. When you put something on social media, do an interview or talk into an open mic, you are at work, because that’s an extension of your job.

As far as Kyle Larson, or anyone else for that matter, I don’t really care what he does and says in the privacy of his own home. That isn’t my business, just like my business isn’t his, or anyone else’s for that matter. I live and let live.

If Larson wants to call his friends n—as in the privacy of his own home, that’s his right. But when it reaches the public domain, then it’s a problem. Some try to call this a “mistake”. No, a “mistake” is when you leave your garage door up overnight and someone steals your weed trimmer. A public figure dropping a racial slur in the public domain is a screw-up of massive proportions.

What bothers me is the argument I’m seeing a lot of today: if rappers and hip-hop artists can use that word without repercussion, why can’t others?

It’s an easy explanation. When you look at those artists, that word is used in their world because when it comes to their brands, there are no repercussions. Sponsorships and other things aren’t connected to the negative connotation of that word. It’s obvious that the people who listen to their songs, the people that write the checks, and the people that make their world go ’round are not offended by what they say.

Their attitude is: if you don’t like our music, than f–k you! And they can feel that way, because for each person they offend, they pick up 10 new listeners. I’m not saying it’s right, I’m just saying that’s the world we live in.

But if you are going to make that argument, that’s a sad standard. I would hope that the standard to which we hold the people in our sport would be a bit higher than that. Lots higher. Like, here-to-the-moon-higher. Resorting to that word, in any circumstance, is cheap and makes me question your level of education.

Personally, I wish that word, and all variations of it, would disappear. It’s an ugly word with an ugly history. The fact that people use that word to create massive fortunes is a bit sad to me. But, our world is consumer driven, and they find people to consume it.

I certainly think that Larson should be held to a higher standard than rappers, and I hope you should too. As an IndyCar fan I feel that way. There is no excuse for a professional athlete to use that word, none.

Larson has certainly learned a lesson. No doubt, there should be a penalty and punishment for what he said, but to wish for this to end his career or to permanently banish him to dirt racing forever is mean and short-sided.

He said what he said, but what happens from here? Again, I think he should serve any penalties handed down, then go and sin no more.

We aren’t put on this Earth to be perfect, we are put here to learn and grow and do the best we can as people for the time we are here. Larson will have to rebuild his image in the eyes of many, which will be a difficult thing to do.

Larson, like a lot of pro athletes who have stumbled in the public eye, learned a harsh lesson, that no matter where they are, someone is watching and listening. It’s a tough standard to live by, but that’s what comes with the job.

He’s got a long road ahead, but I wish him luck.

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