The tragic death of Kevin Ward Jr, who was killed by an automobile driven by NASCAR superstar Tony Stewart, is mentally and emotionally disturbing in a way that almost no sports story has ever been. For the first time since the tragic death of Dale Earnhardt, sports fans have been forced, as a consequence of following a major story, to watch the live death of a sports participant. And unlike the live video death of Earnhardt, which was visually sanitary by comparison, the death of Ward was graphic, grisly, and viscerally upsetting to behold.
At this point, even though several days have passed since the accident, the only undisputed facts are as follows: Stewart and Ward became entangled as they were going around a turn, causing Ward’s car to hit the wall and spin around on the track. Incensed, Ward left his car and stormed down the track, pointing angrily, to confront Stewart as his car drove by under caution. Ward was drug under Stewart’s car and flung down the track where he lay motionless; he was rushed to the hospital and declared dead on arrival.
There are still many undisputed facts although the video exists of the actual horrifying collision, because the video does not show enough other context to provide any useful information as to what might have been in Stewart’s head. You can see Ward moving down the track angrily pointing, and the next second he vanishes under Stewart’s car, which appears basically out of nowhere. I watched the video yesterday and the best thing I can say about it is that I am sorry I did. It was easily one of the most upsetting things I’ve ever seen and it brought me no closer to understanding the event. I will not include it here and will not link to it; if you want to watch it yourself you may Google it, but I advise against doing so. Much has been made of the fact that you can hear a car throttle up immediately before Stewart’s enters the screen; however, there is no indication this was Stewart’s car and, even if so, that would be equally consistent with Stewart steering his car to avoid the driver in front of him, who also appeared to barely miss Ward. It is also unclear from the video how much Stewart’s vision of Ward was obscured by this car.
A False Narrative Emerges
In situations like this, where the facts are unclear and the emotions are unsettling, people often try to create order or a sensible narrative where none actually exists. Many have latched on to the idea that Stewart either intentionally or recklessly ran over Ward, for reasons I have covered elsewhere. There are good reasons to doubt this narrative, and so many commentators have searched for broader, overarching narratives to help explain what may never be fully explainable.
Into this void steps the execrable and ill-informed Colin Cowherd to explain that the real source of blame lies not with Stewart, Ward, poor track conditions, or bad luck, but rather with the people of the South:
Cowherd began the segment by citing NASCAR’s embrace of dangerous displays of masculinity and ‘settling the score,’ saying that it, like the NFL, NHL and boxing, deliberately allowed those elements to draw in a larger male audience. …Saying NASCAR had a ‘unique culture’ that was almost exclusively a ‘southern delicacy,’ the ESPN host linked the sport’s emphasis on displays of masculine aggression to what he said was the ‘eye-for-an-eye’ culture of the South, which he suggested encouraged behavior like that exhibited by both Ward and Stewart.
‘It doesn’t get ratings anywhere really outside of the South in the major cities, Atlanta, Charlotte […] It’s really, really part of the South, and it’s an eye-for-an-eye culture.’
This culture, Cowherd said, encouraged drivers to find ways to ‘settle the score’ by dangerous means, as in the case of Ward and Stewart.
Insofar as Cowherd can be said to make a cogent point at all, he really objects that NASCAR is a sport enjoyed by men who tend to be masculine and are located disproportionately in the South. This revelation is not as damning to Southern men as I think Cowherd imagines. But insofar as Cowherd believes that NASCAR is in some way special or unique in this regard (whether or not due to its popularity in the South), he is absolutely delusional. NASCAR as a sport stands heads and shoulders above the other major American sports in terms of both allowing and promoting equal female participation with men both on the racetrack and on race support teams. Neither the NFL, MLB, nor NBA have made such a concerted effort to encourage female participation or to broaden their appeal to female audiences.
Moreover, Cowherd erroneously and without justification seeks a broader societal explanation for a phenomenon where a much simpler, physiological explanation exists. Driving a car at these speeds around a track while inches away from other suicidally fast cars is, by the frank admission of these allegedly macho racecar drivers, utterly terrifying, in a way that participation in no other sport is. Spending hours on a track while adrenaline is coursing continuously through your body will cause even the most level-headed person to act out in anger upon a high-speed collision (which, of course, immediately amps up the adrenaline level even further). How often have we seen mild-mannered, buttoned-up people lose their calm after a fender bender on the interstate? How much more should we expect such behavior as a matter of simple physiology from insanely competitive drivers who have been battling speeds of 180mph and 43 other cars for several hours?
Cowherd’s crusade here is really a transparent continuation of the effort by sports media (particularly those who have never actually played sports) to emasculate sports. It is merely an added bonus for Cowherd that he can take a gratuitous and completely unjustified swipe at the portion of the country that rejects the advance of preening liberalism in the process. As with the Jonathan Martin and Richie Incognito fiasco, it is irrelevant that the actual facts of the case do not support the narrative on offer. Cowherd and his ilk long ago internalized the lesson that no good tragedy should go to waste. And so the distressing death of one of sports’ bright young stars is pressed into the service of making America a blander, meeker, less offensively American place.