In Men at Work, his bestselling book on baseball, George Will wrote about the competitor-fan alienation that arises from cheating: “Cold, covert, and unfair alterations to the conditions of competition divide the competitors from the spectators, draining sport of its value as a shared activity for a community.” Will’s word choice here is interesting — yes, cheating is the most obvious form of “unfair alterations” in the sports world, but the interpretation of such a term could be expanded to cover actions by a sport’s sanctioning body.
I would give a pretty penny to hear Will’s views on the last couple of weeks in NASCAR racing. A pair of NASCAR management decisions concerning on-track actions has pushed to the boiling point a debate that’s long been simmering on fairness and the consistency of rules enforcement.
A little perspective for the NASCAR newbie: A recent NASCAR Sprint Cup race at Richmond International Raceway was the final event before this year’s Chase, the season-concluding ten-race stretch in which the top twelve drivers compete for the championship. If a driver ranks 13th or lower in the point standings after Richmond, then he (or she) is eliminated from championship contention. Better luck next year. Needless to say, the competition to make the top twelve in points tends to get extremely hot and heavy in the last race before the Chase begins.
This year at Richmond, heated competition was matched by even hotter controversies. Controversy No. 1: After the race’s conclusion, driver Martin Truex Jr. was assessed a 50-point penalty, which removed him from the Chase. What did Truex do to justify such a harsh penalty? Nothing. However, his two teammates at Michael Waltrip Racing, Clint Bowyer and Brian Vickers, were accused of giving up positions on the track to lift Truex into the Chase. But as the beneficiary, Truex bore the brunt of the penalty, and he was replaced in the Chase by the next-highest-ranked driver, Ryan Newman.
On to controversy No. 2: Five-time Sprint Cup champion Jeff Gordon was ranked 13th in the 2013 point standings, trailing twelfth place by just one point. This meant that, Chase-wise, Gordon would be outside looking in.
Except that when all was said and done, Gordon was in the Chase. After the race, Gordon’s team, Hendrick Motorsports, appealed to NASCAR, arguing that two other teams, Penske Motorsports and Front Row Motorsports, had colluded via radio communication to help Penske driver Joey Logano get into the Chase. And given the top-twelve cutoff, this came at Gordon’s expense. In an unprecedented move, NASCAR ruled in Gordon’s favor, adding him to the Chase and thus making 13 drivers eligible for this year’s championship.
In review: Thanks to NASCAR’s judgment calls, one driver who initially ranked in the top twelve following the Richmond race will not have the chance to compete for the 2013 championship, while two other drivers who finished outside of the top twelve will get that chance.
It’s really hard to see how justice has been done here. Both controversies concern teammates helping teammates, and such practices have been not only present in NASCAR, but widely accepted. Long gone are the days when a team fielded one car and one driver. Starting in the mid-1980s, multi-car teams began to dominate the sport. One of the major benefits (or side effects, depending on one’s point of view) of the advent of these teams was that drivers openly helped their teammates on the track. Was this within the rules? Given that these teams faced no penalties for their actions, the answer appeared to be a tacit yes. But with the Richmond rulings, this tacit agreement has been replaced with a big question mark. The rules have been effectively changed, in the midst of competition, without the competitors’ prior knowledge.
NASCAR has faced criticisms on the grounds of inconsistency for a while, as approaches to drivers’ on-track actions have been sometimes harsh and sometimes laissez-faire. Back in 2010, NASCAR adopted what was popularly known as the “boys, have at it” policy. It is what it sounds like: NASCAR management largely tolerated more aggressive actions on the track. This year’s Richmond rulings have confirmed that the “boys, have at it” era is over.
At the core of any discussion of rules in sports is the concept of freedom. Rules provide constraints, and a clear understanding of these constraints governs competitors’ actions. But can rules truly be fair if they’re not clear or not enforced consistently? It’s clear that many of the drivers are keenly aware of this concern. Writing in USA Today earlier this month, Martin Truex’s teammate Brian Vickers not only admitted that he had pitted late in the Richmond race in order to help Truex, but he also strongly defended his actions: “Every lap we take, every car we pass, every pit stop we make changes the outcome of the race. Are we free to choose what and when those moments are or not? You can’t have it both ways.”
And going back to George Will’s words, NASCAR must realize that any “unfair alterations to the conditions of competition” — whether perpetrated by drivers or by the sanctioning body — have the potential to alienate its fans. Though NASCAR possesses the second-highest television ratings among all professional sports in the United States (only the National Football League has more viewers), ratings for most Sprint Cup races have declined in both shares and absolute viewer numbers over the past five seasons. Fans have long been drawn to the sport because they love the competition, but when the competition is micromanaged and rules are changed midstream, fan estrangement is never far behind.
There may be some good news on the horizon, however. Although its rulebook is notoriously opaque (a written set of rules exists, but it is currently unavailable to the public), NASCAR announced in July that it would be making more of the rulebook public, in the interests of eliminating judgments on a case-by-case basis. This would be a great step forward for the sport.
— Jennifer Marsico is a senior research associate at the American Enterprise Institute.