A difficult day to be in NASCAR

I feel a deep sense of hurt, anger and sadness this morning after seeing NASCAR’s name get associated with intolerance.

NASCAR is the most American sport. There are patriotic shows of support for the military at the track, thank-yous to soldiers through a variety of VIP access and weekly honoring of families who have lost loved ones during battle.

But many NASCAR fans seem to overlook a very important part of being an American: The right to free speech and peaceful protest.

Some of the very same people who insist on their right to display the Confederate flag at NASCAR races are outraged over someone else’s right to kneel down during the national anthem as a form of protest.

Whether you agree with either one of these things or would participate in either, they are both free speech.

So when Richard Childress and Richard Petty told reporters Sunday they would fire anyone on their teams who took part in a very American form of protest, it opened the floodgates for an avalanche of shit to rumble down the mountain and cover everyone associated with the sport.

What’s left of our little sanctuary away from politics and social issues is now shattered, if it wasn’t mostly destroyed already. While it would be nice to stick to sports, that becomes impossible once the president starts tweeting about NASCAR as a political prop.

NASCAR has made a tremendous mistake by failing to make a statement on its stance. Instead, two old-guard owners expressed their opinion and spoke for the entire sport.

Though many drivers, crewmen, media members and fans who work in NASCAR were likely thrilled at the team owners’ comments, not everyone shares that opinion. All those associated with NASCAR today are being stereotyped, and it sucks.

Many patriotic people in NASCAR believe in the right to a peaceful protest. It’s part of being an American and should be celebrated, not punished.

Would I kneel during the national anthem? No, because I have always associated it with a soldier killed in action — Sgt. Bryan Brewster — who was the son of my former editor. His name flashes through my mind every time the anthem plays, so I want to respect his memory.

But when soldiers fight for the United States, they are protecting our way of life — which includes the right to express a viewpoint. Those who take a knee are not hurting anyone — they’re not obstructing traffic with a protest, clashing with police in riot gear or fighting counter-protesters — so they should be allowed to do what they want without fear of losing their jobs.

That’s the beauty of living in this country! We have that freedom and that right. That right should be celebrated, even if you don’t agree with their actions. I personally haven’t experienced the kind of social injustice many black people face on a daily basis, so I can’t judge anyone.

But unfortunately, being associated with NASCAR today means my perceived viewpoint has already been determined by others. People who hear that I work in NASCAR will presume I feel the same way as Richard Petty, and that bothers me tremendously. It’s embarrassing, and I wish NASCAR itself would loudly state it supports the right to peaceful protest in whatever way people choose.

During these most turbulent times for the country, we have to come together, show that we tolerate other viewpoints, find common ground and celebrate our differences at the same time.

The ranks of NASCAR fans have dwindled over the last decade, so let’s not shut more people out. Let’s try to make NASCAR a place where all are welcome. But that has to be done through a conscious effort to embrace people who don’t think the same as us.

If that doesn’t happen, NASCAR will just end up as its own island. Should that be the case, the sport’s future is grim.