Rule 1: Put brains in gear before letting mouths race

On Motor Sports

October 31, 1999|By Sandra McKee | Sandra McKee,SUN STAFF

While waiting for next Sunday's Winston Cup race in Phoenix, there is time to ponder the pros and cons of hearing and seeing competitors close up in the heat of professional sports.

Over the past month, Winston Cup racing and pro football, the two most popular televised sports in the country, have experienced embarrassing moments.

Ravens coach Brian Billick was caught using foul language during the Ravens-Atlanta Falcons game. He wasn't wearing a microphone, but as television cameras zoomed in, few had any trouble reading his lips. Afterward, his mother, his wife and his daughter all came down on him for being a bad example.

In New Orleans, Saints coach Mike Ditka was leaving the field after his team had suffered the fourth of five losses. Television cameras were tracking his movements. Fans taunted him. Ditka made an obscene gesture to the crowd and then grabbed his crotch. He was fined $25,000 and apologized. But the replays of that incident go on.

Two weeks ago, crew chief Todd Parrott wore a wireless microphone during the Winston 500 in Talladega, Ala. Parrott is the crew chief for Cup points leader Dale Jarrett and got very angry when his car didn't react the way he thought it would on a restart late in the race. He knew he could be heard, but he also thought ESPN was using a one-second delay and that if he said anything bad it would be bleeped.

He blurted an obscenity.

"There are risks with microphones [and cameras] so close to the action," said ESPN spokesman Dave Nagle. "And with auto racing we have greater access than we do with other sports. We're able to interview participants during the action, and it seems to make the sport more intriguing."

Nagle also said that when "there is the potential for live eavesdropping, we try to anticipate where the person's going This one just slipped through."

It also slipped through on that night's rebroadcast.

Another accident, Nagle said. "It was supposed to have been edited out. We were quite sorry. There were instructions issued immediately after the incident." But the editing didn't occur until the next morning, when the broadcast was cut for rerun.

By then, Parrott had issued an apology, saying, "The language I chose to use was unprofessional and in extremely poor taste. I know that I not only let myself and family down, but the fans and supporters."

Shortly thereafter, NASCAR fined Parrott $5,000.

"We have everyone from 3-year-olds to 90-year-olds watching our races," said Mike Helton, NASCAR's senior vice president and chief operating officer.

"We know things are said in the heat of battle, but we want our people to be responsible for what they say. We don't want to police it to the point where the sport loses its enthusiasm and adrenalin -- that's not what we're after. But we all have a responsibility to the sport, to its well-being. NASCAR reacted [with the fine] to not let the solid character of the sport get away from us."

It's such a predicament.

No one wants to be in the position of defending bad language and manners. In schools these days, one of the hottest topics of conversation at PTA meetings is how to control the bad language students are flinging at each other in hallways and classrooms.

But the whole idea of cameras and microphones is to show and tell what really goes on. Fines of $50,000 and $5,000 are rooted in the idea of changing what people do in emotional moments. And if deterrence works, the bottom line is that reality has been changed.

"I'll assure you," Jarrett said, "that wasn't the only profanity that was said that day along pit road. Todd's taken a lot of heat for it, and it's not a good thing that that language is used, but I don't think there's anybody around here that hasn't at some point tried to keep that to a minimum."

There was some confusion about the microphones. Jarrett's team believed there was a delay on the broadcast "so that anything that shouldn't go out over the air wouldn't because of the delay."

But Nagle said the delay was only on the team's radio conversations. There is no delay on the wireless microphones.

"These things are done to bring the viewer as close to the action as possible and to let them experience it," Nagle said. "It's something we do a couple times a year and something we plan to continue to do, while trying to learn our lessons along the way."

So what's the right call?

Helton, who issued Parrott's fine, admitted it's a difficult situation.

"Behind-the-scenes offers an element of sport that's interesting," he said. "But there is a responsibility that goes with it.

"The world changes every day. All you have to do is flip on TV to see things that would flabbergast my grandmother. The world changes, but we're not sitting with our heads stuck in the sand."

Nuts and bolts

Should CART driver Juan Montoya rally to beat Dario Franchitti, who leads by nine points going into the last race, it would mean the Ganassi team would become the first to win four straight titles. And Montoya would become only the second rookie, joining Nigel Mansell (1993), to win the CART driving title.

NHRA Funny Car driver -- nay, legend -- John Force has won his ninth championship. He beat Tom Johnson in the fastest side-by-side drag race in Funny Car history last weekend at the O'Reily Nationals in Dallas to clinch the title.

The plane crash that killed golfer Payne Stewart on Monday also affected the Winston Cup world. Also killed were Robert Fraley and Van Arden, business agents who represented, respectively, former Washington Redskins coach Joe Gibbs, who now owns the race teams of Bobby Labonte and Tony Stewart, and former crew chief Ray Evernham, who helped Jeff Gordon to three Winston Cup titles.

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