Gone will be the “Stars and Bars” flying over Talladega, Bristol, Martinsville, Darlington and Daytona.
In the wake of George Floyd’s death and millions of people in America and around the globe protesting against racism, discrimination and police violence, companies and brands have been faced with a choice of corporate conscience: take a stand to combat injustice or stay silent and, by implication, be complicit.
More than a debate about long overdue action or “heritage vs. hate,” by prohibiting the display of the Confederate Flag, NASCAR has taken a big risk and made itself a modern case study of social justice and reputational impact.
To be clear, how is banning a symbol associated with intolerance, racism, and slavery a risk? ESPN’s Ryan McGee says it well in his deeply personal article about how its continued presence was mind numbing to begin with:
“There was a time when the swastika meant nothing, too. It first appeared in Asia 5,000 years ago. It was meant to signify the sun. But then someone came along and turned it into the symbol of one of the greatest evil forces that Earth has ever known. You wouldn’t fly that over Talladega, would you?”
The risk is not about philosophically opposing the negative associations. The risk is taking a stand that could potentially alienate a significant number of fans in a sport that has seen a significant drop-off in TV viewership (50% in the case of the Series’ final race) in the last five years. Some might say this decision is not brave but opportune, not trailblazing but a chance to erase a deep stain. Right or wrong, those people are not responsible for maintaining the sport’s following or check book.
Sports have long been said to have the power to unite our country, but they also have a long history of discrimination. While much of that was overcome more than 50 years ago with the integration of professional sports leagues, NASCAR has remained an outlier. Their action to ban the Confederate Flag, to put it in racing terms, was like riding the draft from the back of the pack all the way to front. All eyes will be on them now and how they lead the field.
Torin Ellis, Diversity Strategist & Risk Mitigator and Host of Career Mix on Sirium XM, shared with me that, “since 2012/13, NASCAR has been working to increase diversity on the track and within the stands. I appreciate the efforts and without knowing all the details, it shows they are trying. That said, yesterday’s announcement may have been the biggest announcement within the sport since Wendell Scott hit the scene in the 70’s.”
The steps NASCAR took differs from what we have seen from athletes, teams, and leagues across the rest of sports over the past several weeks. A statement, protest participation and even significant donation to causes fighting racial injustice – $100M in the case of Michael Jordan and the Jordan Brand – does not require anything of fans. It might reflect their personal values and earn deeper team loyalty, but what it does not do is ask them to change how they enjoy or attend that sport.
The force leading the change in NASCAR is Bubba Wallace, the sport’s only African-American driver who raced in a Black Lives Matter painted car in Martinsville on Wednesday. Prior to the race, he recognized how this is both an opportunity and a potential pitfall for NASCAR, saying:
“[NASCAR president Steve] Phelps and I have been in contact a lot just trying to figure out what steps are next. And that was a huge, pivotal moment for the sport. Lot of backlash, but it creates doors and allows the community to come together as one, and that is what the real mission is here. So, I’m excited about that.”
So, what should NASCAR do next?
The flag ban is not the stopping point. The organization must lean into their choice and do more out of sense of responsibility for the stance they took, furthering dialogue and action with current fans who agree with the decision, those against it, and also any new fans who are now supporting NASCAR as a result. Three immediate steps NASCAR should consider:
- Stand firm and engage the opposition – Fans who fly the Confederate Flag at races, have decals on their automobiles or wear shirts with this image did not choose to like NASCAR for this lone symbol. They chose to like the sport due to its sense of excitement and infectious race day atmosphere and competition. NASCAR must enforce this ban and continue the dialogue with these fans on why they made this decision, reminding them race day and race do not have to be at odds.
- Lead by example – NASCAR has stood out from its sports peers for the action it has taken. To show this was authentic, supporting causes of inclusivity both financially AND through volunteering – as an organization and by fan extension – is what can take this from a symbolic act to a transformative one. Also diversifying leadership is another clear sign of commitment.
- Convert new followers into true fans – NASCAR has created potential new interest in their sport (for instance, Wallace noted the outreach he has received from athletes, such as Alvin Kamara, who watched their first race on Wednesday). The important thing for NASCAR will be for them to engage new followers in a way that is genuine to these new audiences. Welcome them, show your commitment to earning their fandom, and at the same time, educate them on the sport’s excitement.
Of course, time will tell how NASCAR emerges. In the meantime, another sports team and league is on the clock for making a change to correct another unnecessary wrong. The spotlight is on you, NFL and its professional team in Washington.