Twitter a double-edged sword for some NASCAR stars
by Tom Bowles
Athletes in America have always been held to a higher standard. Role models for children and idolized by adults, their unflinching popularity comes partnered with unrelenting pressure. Fans become emotionally attached to the point that on-field accomplishments are only part of a “friendship” connection they feel. A full understanding of someone’s true personality is needed; an opportunity to relate as in many cases the investment in an athlete fans follow, representing their own dream they hope — or hoped — to achieve.
Of course, when perfection is expected, all you can do is fail. When the ugly truth comes out that athletes are real people and not the drummed up fantasies so many fans desire … that’s when reality provides a cruel reminder.
NASCAR gave us a taste of that this offseason, a classic case of a sport and its fans getting what they wish for — then working hard to give it up. It came through Twitter, which in the last few years has opened the door as a haven for fans and athletes to connect in a way never before seen. For the next generation, a 140-character “Happy Birthday” message has now replaced the autograph as a fan’s preferred trophy. A response to a child’s Twitter handle makes him or her an automatic fan for life. When done right, it leaves each side with a feel-good ending — no two-hour wait in line for the fan and no forced meeting when the athlete had a bad day.
NASCAR has taken full advantage of the craze, pushing its drivers to social media as a way to keep the lines of communication open. More than any other sport, it’s a “must have” to see who says what after a wreck or to follow one of your 43 favorites consistently when the TV broadcast remains focused on the battle up front. Just yesterday, I learned Juan Pablo Montoya had the flu and Kevin Harvick is antsy. Heck, at times we’ve even seen drivers post their feelings from the cockpit. An opportunity to see their true thoughts, away from the watchful (and reformist) eyes of PR representatives can be refreshing.
But for NASCAR vets, using the medium to speak their minds has also forced them to open their wallets. Criticism about anything from debris cautions to electronic fuel injection led to now-public “secret” fines — a practice NASCAR has since reversed. Suddenly, fans accustomed to hearing their driver’s opinion wind up with politically correct, canned responses where a wall gets built between the guilty party and his true personality. And for a sport looking to connect with a new audience, generic just won’t cut it.
But in the midst of NASCAR giving the smackdown, doling out at least $25,000 fines to Denny Hamlin and Brad Keselowski within the last two years, the fans themselves are not blameless. Take this series of controversial “maternity” tweets from Kasey Kahne as an example, posted over the offseason when he was walking through a grocery store:
“See a mom breastfeeding little kid. Took second look because obviously I was seeing things. I wasn’t!”
“One boob put away one boob hanging!! #nasty
“I don’t feel like shopping anymore or eating.”
As always, controversial comments breed anger from those who disagree. Within hours, Kahne found himself on the defensive, and later, tweeted an apology. Now under the Hendrick banner, he’ll be taught better than to “step into the shadow of negative publicity,” but the reaction it spawned sealed the deal. Expect a lot of “at the track,” “this race was great,” and “at my [insert sponsor here] special reception. It’s a lot of fun and I can’t thank them enough!”
Already, we’ve seen once-outspoken drivers like Hamlin tone down the rhetoric following their incidents, but the fan furor here ignites an additional debate. Certainly, for many, Kahne’s comments weren’t in good taste but they were also an opinion; nothing more, nothing less. Isn’t that what you want from your athletes? The chance to express who they really are? They have beliefs and opinions and crack jokes just like everyone else, and often times, they’re not going to be like yours.
But when fans hold athletes to the fire, reviling them for expressing an opinion, what type of message does that send? “We’re happy to hear from you… but only if we like what you have to say.” That’s not exactly a ringing endorsement for a driver to speak his or her mind in the future. Because where do you draw the line? Will someone who hunts, then tweets about it, be forced to apologize by a barrage of PETA protesters? Sounds ridiculous, but in a world where a single 140-character statement can become a national furor, well, in the hands of the wrong, crazed fan, anything is possible.
But that’s the danger with fans getting too close to their idols: They can’t dream up who they are anymore. So the second they say something off base, it hurts 10 times more than a random person on the street saying it. An ugly pattern evolves, one seen with famous people several times over the last few years. One Twitter comment is made, people disagree, and a witch hunt ensues; they have to apologize. The fan has to be reminded their athlete can be whom they envision. They’ll settle for nothing less.
Ultimately, fans have to decide what they want. Politically correct, boring tweets are becoming the norm and not the exception these days in NASCAR Nation. But if race fans can’t handle another driver’s opinion, maybe that’s all they need to see.
In the meantime, we’ll always have @KylePetty.
Follow Tom on Twitter: @NASCARBowles