Dump the Trump Talk

Sarena Malsin, Sports Editor

At a Valdosta State University rally on Feb. 29, yet another public endorsement fell into Trump’s small, small hands — this time from Brian France, chairman and CEO of NASCAR. In a statement to Sports Blog Nation, a NASCAR spokeswoman assured audiences that the endorsement was France’s “private decision,” but those words do little to erase the connection between NASCAR and Trump that France’s statement inevitably ­formed in fans’ minds.

As part of his endorsement, France spoke of his longstanding relationship with Trump and Trump’s good relationship with his own family, while three other big names in NASCAR — Bill Elliot, Chase Elliot and Ryan Newman — stood behind him in apparent support. This surely didn’t help to differentiate France’s views from NASCAR’s, but rather emphasized the fact that France’s views likely reflect the views of a number of his staff and colleagues. Trump even helped to solidify the connection between France’s sentiments and NASCAR’s by saying, “I am proud to receive the endorsement of such an iconic brand and a quality person such as Brian [France].”

France is only the latest endorsement Trump has received from the realm of professional sports, and his statement illustrates the power that professional athletes and athletic club owners have when they mix sports with politics. The fact that France is essentially aligning his private company and its entire base of fans, athletes and supporters with Trump’s views and campaign may not seem shocking at first, given the conservative nature of the NASCAR fan dom. But this endorsement actually throws a major wrench in progress he had been making in recent months to move his company away from negative connotations of racism and bigotry.

For the past year or so, France has been successfully expanding NASCAR’s accessibility to minority audiences that previously felt alienated or unrepresented by promoting the careers of non-white drivers and denouncing the Confederate flag. In light of this progress, the inevitable fallout France has faced serves as confirmation that it’s impossible for sports moguls to keep political statements from reverberating throughout their fanbases. It also reveals that Trump’s speech and debate style, which is rife with aggressive ad-hominem attacks, has made endorsements for his campaign too personal to keep them separate from professional sports. Teams and companies collect followers and audiences based on personal connections to athletes and fan communities, so backing a candidate known for a very personalized and direct form of aggression and bigotry has more serious repercussions.

Sponsors, who have been counting on France’s redirection of NASCAR to more accessible horizons, balked at further commitment. He called his endorsement “routine,” clearly not understanding that his endorsement of Trump — known for making extremely offensive remarks targeting Mexican immigrants and Muslims (to name a few) and currently endorsed by a former leader of the Ku Klux Klan — was in direct opposition to his previous work to promote the work of minority groups and their inclusion in NASCAR audiences. Even in light of Republican candidate endorsements by NASCAR CEOs in the past, this “routine endorsement” doesn’t really hold up to new promises of inclusivity when it’s going to someone whose language and actions have been compared to fascist ideology.

France isn’t the only one in the sports world who has learned the hard way that the slightest nod in Trump’s direction would inevitably group him into Trump’s broad support base — whether at the hands of the media or Trump himself. Take Bill Elliot, one of the NASCAR stars who is now irrevocably lumped with France and Ryan Newman as part of the sport’s pro-Trump coalition. It was later revealed that Elliot had only received an invitation from NASCAR to fly on a company plane to a Trump event in Georgia — Elliot’s home state — because he was “intrigued by the election process” and wanted to see Trump speak. Like France, he seemingly didn’t understand the implications of his actions until he received vicious backlash on social media from fans and colleagues. Now his name is permanently linked to the campaign.

A similar, perhaps more well-known case emerged last September, when New England Patriots quarterback Tom Brady made the seemingly innocuous remark that it would be “great” if Trump won the election when asked about a “Make America Great Again” hat hanging on his locker. When he also faced social media criticism, Brady backtracked and claimed that his comment was taken out of context, saying he hadn’t yet chosen a candidate to vote for. In light of his response in an interview with CNN, it seemed Brady’s comment was just a gesture of offhand goodwill. “I think that it’s just a different world than when I started in professional football,” he said. “Even an offhanded comment like that … that people may run with … I mean a comment like that, it’s — I try to have fun with certain things.”

Indeed, it’s a slippery slope for sports personalities who have the misfortune of making any vaguely supportive statements or comments towards Trump. His campaign’s work to actively blur the lines between personal and professional is exacerbating pre-existing personal loyalties —­ and consequent feelings of betrayal — that sports fans have. In other words, sports pros are already in a particularly precarious position in regards to public political statements, and Trump is making that position much more dangerous. Offhand political support seems to carry a little more weight — and hurt — in Trump’s case than it has for past presidential elections, but assurances that these sports guys didn’t understand the significance of their words are getting old. As far as political leanings go for 2016, it’s time for athletes and team owners to wise up. And that means shutting up.