Donovan McNabb trolled the NASCAR Sprint Cup garage Sunday, getting the VIP treatment typical for star athletes and celebrities who appear on national sports shows.
The fact that McNabb said last November that NASCAR drivers aren’t athletes, though, made this a little different than typical national TV talent visiting the garage. It added an extra bit of attention to an already overblown story.
NASCAR views McNabb’s appearance as an opportunity to educate a star of a major sports network (Fox Sports 1) — and a panelist on its signature show (Fox Sports Live!) — who can influence viewers. At least he can gain a bit of understanding of the sport, a little perspective when he spouts his views. He wasn’t the only person from FS1 at the race Sunday.
But it’s hard to view his appearance at Auto Club Speedway as only that, as just an educational exercise.
In some ways, what seemed to be a celebration of his presence — McNabb was introduced at the prerace drivers meeting, and he was the only Fox Sports personality whose appearance was covered Sunday by NASCAR’s website — appears as if NASCAR is begging for acceptance from a former pro football player who made an uneducated statement.
And it’s hard to ignore that there are another 3.8 billion reasons why NASCAR should cater to McNabb. Fox Sports is paying NASCAR $3.8 billion from 2015-2024 for its first-half TV rights, with seven races each year on Fox’s new baby, Fox Sports 1. The more publicity NASCAR can generate for the network, the better for both Fox and NASCAR.
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McNabb spouting off about whether Jimmie Johnson does something athletic in a racecar two nights before the season finale last November could be his real feelings or it could have been an exaggerated brash statement designed, in part, to attract attention. Considering how Fox played up the comments on its website and ensuing shows only enhances the perception that it embraced making the news and then following the story.
For his part, McNabb didn’t back off those comments when interviewed Sunday by NASCAR.com. He said he respected what drivers do to get ready to race but that he stood by what he said and wasn’t attending the race to make friends.
Should anyone in NASCAR really care about McNabb’s opinion of NASCAR drivers? He’s a former Pro Bowl quarterback. He is on a talk show where the rest of the panel disagreed with him.
The reaction of the NASCAR community to McNabb’s initial comments reeked of an inferiority complex. The initial comments should have been dismissed as ignorant rather than disrespect that conjures anger. The NASCAR industry seemed overly sensitive and desperate for his acceptance, for his praise.
McNabb got a pace-car ride from Clint Bowyer and sat atop Johnson’s pit box Sunday. Maybe he got a little more respect for what goes into the sport.
But there’s no way he can understand — nor can anyone who doesn’t drive racecars — the athleticism required. Only after run 500 laps at Bristol could someone truly understand the strength required to handle the g-forces, the endurance needed to handle the weight loss and heat in the car.
McNabb made the comments on a show on a new network that needed to make a splash. By parading McNabb around Auto Club Speedway, NASCAR gave the show additional publicity. But it also lent credence to those comments because it was a sign of respect for McNabb and what he said.
NASCAR needs to respect McNabb’s role on the national media landscape. It can’t just wipe its hand clean and believe what he says doesn’t matter. By hosting McNabb, NASCAR can appear to be the bigger man in the whole thing by showing respect to someone who doesn’t respect the sport.
Whether it accomplished anything Sunday other than promoting Fox and McNabb himself is questionable. And in the process, while maybe done in the spirit of education and respect, NASCAR appeared to hug the man who kicked it in the gut and has no plans to stop.