On My Mind: It's A New Game Now

Jun 11, 2020

ESPN has a tagline it likes to use for its “30 for 30” documentaries and podcasts. The commercials often start like this: “What if I told you ...”

It feels like this moment calls for one of those. So: What if I told you that the statue of once-beloved Carolina Panthers owner Jerry Richardson would be unceremoniously removed from Bank of America Stadium? And that a NASCAR driver would take to the track for a race in a car proclaiming that Black Lives Matter? And that NASCAR would ban Confederate flags from its tracks? All on the same day?

It all happened on Wednesday.

Bubba Wallace – the first black driver with a full-time ride in NASCAR since Wendell Scott almost 50 years ago – drove the Black Lives Matter car in the race at Martinsville, Virginia, Wednesday night. The paint scheme featured clasped black and white hands on the hood, above the words “Compassion, Love and Understanding.” To add to the symbolism, he’s driving the No. 43 car – that’s the number of Richard Petty, NASCAR’s greatest winner and the owner of the team Wallace drives for.

When Wallace started racing in NASCAR’s top series two years ago, he tried to focus on other things than being NASCAR’s only black driver. But since the death of George Floyd, he has stepped forward – he wore an “I Can’t Breathe” T-shirt before Sunday’s race in Atlanta. Other drivers have put out their own statements condemning racism and pledging to fight for equality. And Wednesday afternoon, just a couple of hours before the Martinsville race, NASCAR announced that Confederate flags are banned from its tracks.

But you might remember that NASCAR is currently running races without fans because of the coronavirus. At some point, Wallace will be driving in front of tens of thousands of race fans, at least some of whom are now furious that they can’t bring the Stars and Bars to the track. You can predict a lot of things in sports. I have no idea what those first few races will be like.

In all the days of protests after George Floyd’s death, I didn’t hear Jerry Richardson’s name even once – didn’t even think about him. But apparently there was some online talk that protestors might be coming for the statue of him outside the Panthers’ stadium.

Richardson was once a hero here. He founded the Panthers and owned the team for its entire existence. But in December 2017, Sports Illustrated published a story saying that the Panthers had paid out multiple settlements to employees over Richardson’s inappropriate words and actions. Most of them were sexual. But there was also an allegation that he aimed a racial slur at a Panthers scout who was black. The day the story came out, the Panthers announced that Richardson was selling the team.

When David Tepper bought the team in 2018, he said part of the contract was that the Richardson statue would stay put. The team announced Wednesday that it was coming down for safety reasons. So about 2 in the afternoon a group of workers came out, loosened the statue at the feet, wrapped a couple of straps around Jerry’s shoulders, and hauled him off to an undisclosed location.

I would bet the contents of my wallet that he’s never coming back.

Accounts are being settled, here and all over the world. Confederate statues have come down in Birmingham and Richmond. Over in England, Brits took down the statue of a slave trader and dumped it in Bristol Harbor.

Here in Charlotte, CPI Security lost its sponsorships with all the major area sports teams after its CEO said there should be more of a focus on black-on-black crime. And on the other side of the ledger, Charlotte Hornets owner Michael Jordan has spoken out against racism as much or more than he ever did in his playing career. And he backed up the talk: He, his Jordan Brand and Nike pledged $100 million to social justice causes.

If you’ve ever worked as a sportswriter and you’ve written about the social issues behind the games, at some point somebody has told you to stick to sports. I understand that some people come to sports for an escape, like listening to music without paying attention to the lyrics. But in some ways, sports are the purest reflection of society. Everything that matters in the world shows up in the people who play the games. The world will not let you freeze a racetrack in the Old South, or leave a statue up forever. This is a brand new season.

Tommy Tomlinson’s On My Mind column normally runs every Monday on WFAE and WFAE.org. It represents his opinion, not the opinion of WFAE. You can respond to this column in the comments section below. You can also email Tommy at ttomlinson@wfae.org.

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