Imagine this: About a month before Major League Baseball's playoffs, commissioner Bud Selig announces that the wild-card round will have a new title sponsor. From now on, the games will be known as the NRLC Survivor Series -- named after the National Right to Life Committee, the nation's oldest and largest pro-life organization, which is forking over a handsome sum for MLB sponsorship rights, same as Nike, Samsung and Bank of America.
Oh, and to anybody suggesting that the league's newest financial partnership might be slightly controversial -- given that abortion tends to be, you know, slightly controversial -- Selig offers the verbal equivalent of a what-me-worry? shrug.
It's a sports marketing event, he says. It's not a political platform.
Right. Not political. Would you buy that? Would anyone? Yes? Great. Drop what you're doing. Polish up your resume. Send it to NASCAR. They may have a public relations job for you. On Monday, the Texas Motor Speedway announced that the National Rifle Association will sponsor an upcoming race, the newly-named NRA 500, NASCAR's first prime-time event of the Sprint Cup season on April 13.
Perhaps you've heard of the NRA. The organization likes guns. A lot. It likes the second half of the Second Amendment. A lot. It is not particularly fond of President Obama, New York City Mayor Mike Bloomberg, CNN host Piers Morgan and other gun control advocates. The NRA is widely considered to be one of the most powerful -- if not the most powerful -- lobbying groups on Capitol Hill, in part because it has a large and passionate membership base, in part because it spends millions of dollars on influencing both elections and public policy. In the wake of a December mass shooting at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Conn., NRA vice president Wayne LaPierre did not hide under a coffin. To the contrary, he gave a much-publicized speech in which he blamed: (a) video games; (b) the media; (c) lax policing; (d) neither guns nor bullets for the wholesale slaughter of 20 children and six adults. Like the National Right to Life Committee, NARAL Pro-Choice America, the American Israel Public Affairs Committee or-- in theory! -- the fictional Friends of Hamas, the NRA is a public pressure group with a distinct point of political and cultural view and the cojones to fight for what it believes to be right.
And yes, it is also NASCAR's newest race sponsor.
Still, no need for gun control supporters to stage a trackside protest. Or for gun rights backers to stage a counter-protest. No need for citizens on either side of the issue to pressure other sponsors, write angry letters, raise a snarky stink on Twitter. No need to have any sort of opinion at all, really, unless it involves Danica Patrick versus Jimmie Johnson, or maybe the merits of UPS versus FedEx and Budweiser versus Miller Light. Because as Texas Motor Speedway track president Eddie Gossage told USA TODAY Sports on Monday, the NRA 500 -- and by the way, doesn't that just sound like a type of assault rifle, give or take a random hyphen? -- is a "sports marketing event. It's not a political platform."
Taking money from a political advocacy group in return for public exposure is not the same thing as providing a political platform. Sure. Makes perfect sense. Also, we have always been at war with Eurasia. In sticking the NRA's sponsorship money in the fridge and the organization's overwhelmingly political raison d'etre in the freezer -- and then claiming the two are being housed on different planets -- Gossage is being naive at best. Disingenuous at worst. Making a distinction without a difference. Oddly enough, he sounds like a politician. And he's not alone. LaPierre also would like you to believe that the NRA's decision to make it rain over a NASCAR race has nothing to do with the group's political agenda, and instead involves what he called in a video message "everything that is good and right about America. We salute our flag … volunteer in our churches and communities … cherish our families … and WE LOVE RACING!"
Look, all of that is well and good. I have no doubt that the NRA, NASCAR and Texas Motor Speedway are pro-flag, pro-church, pro-mom, pro-apple pie, pro-hand sanitizer and pro-Golden Retriever puppy. And so what? Uncontentious pablum isn't the issue. The NRA's aggressive, love-it-or-hate-it public advocacy for maximal gun rights -- which includes marketing itself to stock car fans -- is the issue. Wrapping that in a checkered NRA 500 flag and pretending otherwise flies in the face of logic and common sense. It's borderline insulting.
"I think it's almost too disingenuous for words," says Dave Zirin, a writer for The Nation and author of "Game Over: How Politics Has Turned the Sports World Upside Down." "You could choke on this level of disingenuousness. The NRA is an explicitly political organization, and whether you agree or disagree with its dystopic vision of an America where citizens need to arm themselves with AR-15s, we can all agree it's a political organization. NASCAR choosing to brand their race with the NRA should be viewed for what it is. Political branding. A political advertisement."
Financial sponsorship is not charity. It is not clicking "like" on a Facebook post. It's quid pro quo. Quid: I give you money. Quo: you give me a platform for my brand and message. A platform like the hood of a stock car. A driver's logo-festooned flame-retardant jacket. The name of a race. Same as Lowe's and Go Daddy, the NRA is coughing up cold, hard cash -- a reported high-six/low-seven figure sponsorship fee that could otherwise be going into the political action committee coffers of sympathetic lawmakers -- for exposure and affinity it can't get otherwise.
"There's nothing illegal or immoral about the NRA supporting NASCAR," says Sen. Richard Blumenthal, D-Conn., who has co-sponsored legislation that would add new criminal penalties for gun trafficking. "But they're wasting money if they think they are going to persuade Americans that their opposition to sensible gun violence measures is justified.
"Making sure there are no more Newtowns won't depend on racing sponsorships. I hope Americans will make decisions about gun violence based on real-life evidence, not on advertisements."
Perhaps they will. Yet consider: according to ABC News, more than $550 million was spent on televised political ads during the 2012 election cycle … in just five swing states. Commercials are the performance-enhancing drugs of politics; parties, candidates and advocacy groups use them because they work. To wit: Like most broadcasters, Fox does not air commercials from gun manufacturers. According to USA TODAY Sports, however, the network is contractually obligated to mention the track sponsor's name once per hour during its prime-time NASCAR Sprint Cup telecasts. The NRA is paying for that. (Sorry, family and flag salutes: You're cute, but generally not monetizable.) I wouldn't be surprised if the NRA had someone monitor its freshly-titular race to ensure that Fox upholds its end of the deal; heck, I wouldn't be surprised if the organization backed the Texas Motor Speedway anticipating public backlash and angry sports columns, both of which can help stoke the group's us-against-the-world bunker mentality and be reprocessed into direct mail fundraising appeals. After all, the whole point of advertising is to cut through the world's din and spur potential clients to favorable action -- as was the case, ironically, at the Daytona 500, when Michael Waltrip drove a Swan Racing car decorated with decals supporting a Newtown victims' relief fund and both NASCAR chairman Brian France and the NASCAR Foundation announced $50,000 donations to the charity.
But sure: None of this is political.
In a way, Gossage's insistence that an NRA sponsorship is the same as an auto parts or fast food sandwich sponsorship reflects a larger cultural desire. A collective habit of cognitive dissonance. Over at Deadspin, they have a name for it: Stick to Sports. In other words, leave politics out of our games. Be like Michael Jordan, who once famously refused to endorse a Democratic candidate in a North Carolina Senate race because "Republicans buy shoes, too." Follow the advice of Howard Cosell, who near the end of his life said that the No. 1 rule of the "jockocracy" is that "sports and politics just don't mix."
A pretty thing to think? Absolutely. But also bogus. A notion that has always been bogus. Bogus when ancient Greek Olympic champions were feted with government appointments; bogus when Jessie Owens embarrassed Hitler; bogus when John Carlos and Tommie Smith raised gloved fists on the medal stand at the 1968 Olympics; bogus when Muhammad Ali didn't have no quarrel with them Viet Cong; bogus when Mahmoud Abdul-Rauf refused to stand for the national anthem; bogus when the Phoenix Suns wore "Los Suns" jerseys to protest Arizona's controversial "show your papers" law; bogus when the NFL handed out nearly $1 million to federal lawmakers' political action committees last year; bogus when Egyptian "ultras" -- soccer fan clubs -- became a key vanguard of national revolution and the Arab Spring. Years ago, cricket author, West Indian nationalist and Marxist historian C.L.R. James wrote that "the British tradition soaked deep into me was that when you entered the sporting arena, you left behind you the sordid compromises of everyday existence." James spoke for all of us. All of us who value sports as a tidy, self-contained escape from the world. Only James was being ironic. He knew better. He knew that sports are inherently political because life is inherently political, and that arbitrary distinctions -- sidelines and baselines; the sports page over here and the metro section over there -- are just that.
"Politics and sports have always existed together without the acknowledgement that they co-exist," Zirin says. "The first sports teams to ever visit the White House happened in the Andrew Johnson administration. Sports has long been used to deliver patriotism, militarism, nationalism. I think this NRA sponsorship is part of that tradition. What amounts to a private, well-funded entity is trying to use to sports to pump politics through play."
The NRA understands. If the organization's interest in NASCAR was solely about loving racing, why wouldn't they just buy a bunch of tickets to the Texas race? I think Gossage understands, too. While announcing the title sponsorship, he was quick to point out that "if anything, it will play to the core audience in NASCAR. Plus, there will be a lot of folks that appreciate the fact that something demographically consistent with the sport is involved to this degree. I think it'll be a plus." Translation? We know our fans. They're mostly cool with guns, and also the NRA's politics. It's Texas! Tellingly, Gossage also conceded that he plans to solicit team owners' opinions about altering the race's traditional victory lane celebration. The reason?
For years, victorious drivers have donned cowboy hats and fired blanks from a pair of six-shooters, Yosemite Sam-style.
"I don't want to affect some sponsor on a uniform somewhere that says, 'I didn't want that picture. I didn't want my driver with a gun in his hand,'" Gossage told USA TODAY Sports. "Even though it's a cap gun. I don't want to hurt anyone's sponsorship."
Of course not. No hurting anyone's sponsorship. Not at a -- cough -- sports marketing event. Picture it now: the winner of the NRA 500, grinning for photographers, brandishing a pair of smoking pistols. The visual equivalent of the jubilant, imaginary NLRC Survivor Series winners plastering their clubhouse with plastic tarps, sprayed champagne and MOST WANTED posters of local abortion doctors. What would be political about that?