Friday, February 8, 2013

The Ayanbadejo of Nascar?

Among the stories going viral this week is a column by Chuck Culpepper of Sports on Earth about an interview with Baltimore Ravens linebacker Brendon Ayanbadejo after the Super Bowl.

Culpepper revealed in the column that he is gay, and wrote that he shook Ayanbadejo's hand and thanked him at the end of the interview for being one of the first professional athletes in a team sport to speak out on behalf of gay rights. Ayanbadejo had created a bit of a firestorm in Baltimore when he voiced support for gay marriage in Maryland last year.

All of which made me wonder if there will ever be an Ayanbadejo in Nascar -- a driver willing to take a stand for gay rights. And if so, when?
Friday's Nascar headlines were perhaps telling in that regard. It was reported by several outlets, including The New York Times, that Darrell Wallace Jr. will become a full-time driver in the Camping World Truck Series this season.

Wallace will be the first black driver since 2007 to have a full ride in a top-three national series, and only the fourth in the 65-year history of the sport. Nascar has been working for years through it's Drive for Diversity program to develop minority and female drivers to attract a new and younger demographic. Wallace is one of the sport's brightest hopes.

As far as I can tell, fewer than 10 black drivers have raced in Nascar's top three national series. Ever. Compared to other professional sports today, that number is hard to fathom. But minorities haven't always been welcome in stock-car racing -- even Wallace has faced racism growing up in the sport. 

Meanwhile, around the country, recent polls and election results indicate growing support for gay rights and gay marriage. And statements by Ayanbadejo and Minnesota punter Chris Kluwe, as well as the You Can Play and It Gets Better campaigns, show the newfound acceptance of gays among athletes and sports leagues.
But there are no out gay athletes in any of the four major team sports as of yet. So despite Ayanbadejo, Kluwe and others, team sports remain a step behind the general public.

And Nascar, fair to say, is a few steps behind the major team sports. Because unlike the others, there isn't even a conversation about gay rights going on in the Nascar garage right now, nor a You Can Play or It Gets Better campaign. Drivers remain ever careful not to upset their corporate sponsors by taking risky political stands that might turn fans against them.

So will there ever be an Ayanbadejo in Nascar? It's probably inevitable.

But considering how long it has taken for Nascar to begin to integrate, I doubt I'll be shaking anybody's hand anytime soon.