Commentary

NRA deal isn't worth trouble

Race sponsorship comes with potential downsides for NASCAR

Updated: March 6, 2013, 7:43 PM ET
By Jemele Hill | ESPN.com

Tim Tebow recently found out that a controversial association will mar even the best intentions.

Tebow was forced to cancel an appearance at Dallas' First Baptist Church because the media started revisiting past controversial remarks made by its pastor, Robert Jeffress, who the day before the election said President Barack Obama would pave the way for the "Antichrist" and has also said gays shouldn't be allowed in the military because "70 percent of the gay population" has AIDS.

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Tom Pennington/Getty ImagesThe NRA will sponsor a 500-mile Cup race at Texas Motor Speedway.

Tebow canceled because he probably figured out that whatever message he planned to deliver was going to be lost in Jeffress' radical rants. Tebow said on Twitter that he canceled his appearance "due to new information that has been brought to my attention."

Tebow got it, but NASCAR apparently doesn't. Because I just can't understand the wisdom behind NASCAR's allowing the National Rifle Association to sponsor a race at the Texas Motor Speedway next month, right during a time when the country is feeling a lot of angst about guns.

This isn't another gun debate, but rather an appeal to common sense. Guns are a sensitive topic in America. Next week will mark three months since the tragedy at Sandy Hook Elementary School, where a disturbed gunman killed 20 first-graders and six educators.

Emotions are still raw concerning the Newtown killings. So raw, in fact, that at the Daytona 500, Michael Waltrip raced the No. 26 car to commemorate the 26 who died. There was also a number painted on the car that people could text to make donations to the Sandy Hook School Support Fund to help the families and classmates impacted by the tragedy.

The car was a major storyline at Daytona. The original idea came from NASCAR president Mike Helton. And NASCAR CEO Brian France and his wife, Amy, made a $50,000 donation to the Sandy Hook fund that was matched by the NASCAR Foundation.

NASCAR made the Sandy Hook car a media event at Daytona. The organization and its teams sent a strong message of support -- which is now undermined by the NRA presence.

To be fair, the NRA has had a business relationship with the Texas Motor Speedway for 12 years. And it sponsored a Nationwide race in Atlanta last year. Each track is responsible for landing a title sponsor, which must be approved by NASCAR.

On Monday, NASCAR gave its blessing to the NRA deal, releasing a statement that said the agreement between the Texas Motor Speedway and the NRA met the guidelines.

"This isn't a political platform," said Texas Motor Speedway president Eddie Gossage. "This is a sports marketing opportunity. They saw it was obviously a very attractive sports marketing opportunity and seized it. That's what it's all about."

Gossage is wrong. It's about much more than marketing or money. And it is political.

No major sports league in America would ever accept a sponsorship by a pro-abortion-rights or anti-abortion group. Why? The goal is to draw fans, not divide them.

It doesn't matter that NASCAR fans -- especially many in Texas -- are considered to be a supportive base for the NRA. The last thing NASCAR should want to do is remind people about this country's gun debate.

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Jerry Markland/NASCAR/Getty ImagesThe NRA also sponsored a Nationwide race in September.

NASCAR also shouldn't want to be perceived as being insensitive to the Sandy Hook victims. Or the 12 people who were killed and the 58 wounded in the mass shooting at a movie theater in Aurora, Colo. Or the 506 people murdered in Chicago last year, predominantly in shootings, a 16 percent jump from 2011.

Besides, NASCAR could have used more selfish reasons to pass on the NRA sponsorship. Television ratings for the Daytona 500 jumped 24 percent from 2012, thanks in part to Danica Patrick. There are a lot of new eyes on the sport, and the risk is that this polarizing organization will make them rethink giving the sport a chance.

Certainly any league's priority is to make money. But let's also be honest about something: NASCAR is still fighting the perception that the sport isn't very inclusive even after decades of expanding beyond its historic roots in the rural South. In fact, driver Jeremy Clements was just suspended indefinitely for reportedly using a racial slur while talking to a reporter at Daytona.

Patrick is helping NASCAR diversify its fan base and softening its image. Pandering to the NRA crowd doesn't do anything but reinvigorate old stereotypes about the sport and its fans.

The NRA itself isn't to blame for what happened in Newtown, Aurora or Chicago.

But a highly public commercial relationship with the organization just isn't worth the trouble.

Jemele Hill | email

ESPN.com, ESPN The Magazine