‘Free speech’an oxymoronin athletics

Professional and collegiate sports seem to have their own definition of free speech — and it includes a price tag, which kind of negates the “free” part.

If a college baseball coach complains about an umpiring crew that had a bad day with its eyesight, then the conference and/or the NCAA levies a fine at the coach and possibly even the school.

When an NFL coach tells the media that a referee completely blew a call at an important juncture, the commissioner and his consequence minions huddle to determine a monetary repercussion.

If an NBA player publicly states that an official let a foul go all game long, then that player’s wallet will be happily lightened by the league.

And so on.

The latest incident of “unfree speech” involved Tony Stewart, who recently spoke out about what he saw as a safety issue. He simply — and correctly — criticized NASCAR for abandoning a rule that once required a wheel to have all five lug nuts fastened (teams now fasten just three or four lug nuts in races, presumably saving time in the pits). Stewart said bad things could happen if that shortcut caused a wheel to fly off a car.

Rather than rubbing its collective chin and realizing that Stewart might be right, NASCAR officials instead did what all professional and collegiate executives do when criticism is aimed their way: they got their britches in a bunch and hit Stewart with a $35,000 fine.

Despite his comments having enough logic and truth, NASCAR fell back on the protection of its rule book to justify fining Stewart. According to Section 12 of the rule book, it states “… actions that could result in a $10,000-$50,000 fine include disparaging the sport and/or NASCAR’s leadership.”

Thankfully, the Drivers Council — which is made up of some of the best-known drivers in NASCAR — stepped in took the fine away from Stewart, choosing to absorb the $35,000 among its membership. The group also released a statement that was only missing a wagging finger at NASCAR: “We as drivers believe Tony has the right to speak his opinion on topics that pertain to a sport that he has spent nearly two decades helping build as both a driver and an owner. While we do not condone drivers lashing out freely at NASCAR, we do feel Tony was in his rights to state his opinion. We as a Council support him and do not agree with the fine. Therefore, we fellow council members have agreed to contribute equally to paying his fine.”

We’re certainly not condoning that coaches, managers and participants of professional and/or collegiate athletics be allowed to run their mouths helter-skelter. But there should be some kind of fair and foul line drawn between a temper tantrum and a valid opinion or complaint.



“Some people’s idea of free speech is that they are free to say what they like, but if anyone says anything back, that is an outrage.” (Winston Churchill)

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