For years, NASCAR has worked with historically black colleges and in an unexpected partnership with mutual benefits in diversity, workforce development and outreach.
But with the news that NASCAR owners are all in with President Donald Trump on firing drivers who protest during the playing of the national anthem, the unorthodox partnership could soon be extinguished by sociopolitical jockeying.
The NASCAR-HBCU partnership has been quietly successful for more than a decade, occasionally generating support for its efforts to recruit and train former athletes for positions in pit crews, management, sales and promotion.
But in the last five years, something powerful has been happening with HBCU campuses recruiting and exporting better talent, welcoming professional partnerships, and drawing the attention from sports superstars in the name of black pride.
The top rookie in the NFL this year? North Carolina A&T Aggie legend and 4th Tarik Cohen.
The NBA Players Association partnering with the Southern Intercollegiate Athletic Association and the Southwestern Athletic Conference to create an exclusive combine with HBCU basketball players.
Top talent in football and basketball coming to HBCUs in greater numbers, and that influx of talent paying off at Howard, North Carolina A&T, Texas Southern and other schools pulling statistical upsets over larger power conference opponents in both sports.
Remembers a few years back when NBA players were in the midst of a lockout? Two of the stops on their national barnstorming tour – Morgan State University and Winston-Salem State University.
But accompanying these gains in HBCU sports brand value is the recent effort from HBCU students athletes adding to the nation’s sociopolitical movements. Cheerleaders at Howard University were among the first athletic teams in the country to kneel in protest during the playing of the national anthem last fall.
Dozens of HBCU athletes have been involved in community service, social media advocacy, and other forms of protest against police brutality, white nationalism and other issues, primarily spurred by President Trump’s incendiary remarks which have split states between the ideas of revisionist history and black progress.
So now we have NASCAR, which has historically struggled with racial diversity and its fans showcasing themselves as the symbols of a stifled-yet-surviving view of confederate lifestyle, openly saying that it will not tolerate its primarily white league emulating the political actions of the predominantly black NFL.
Hall of Fame driver Richard Petty’s sentiments took it a step further, saying: “Anybody that don’t stand up for the anthem oughta be out of the country. Period. What got ’em where they’re at? The United States.”
When asked if a protester at Richard Petty Motorsports would be fired, he said, “You’re right.”
NASCAR better tread lightly, because HBCUs will not continue to release their students and their protection to a sport willing to be submarined by its owners embracing the philosophies behind the symbols.
The dueling perspectives should make all of corporate America sit up and notice – there is money to be made in communities fighting for greater equity, and money to be lost in opposing or staying quiet on the subject.
But if NASCAR chooses to stay quiet on the perceived bias of its owners, there will be a harsher penalty for the organization than for President Trump; the sacrifice of a racist label it has worked hard to discard, but what can easily be stapled to its brand with a wrong or absent response.