NASCAR told Bubba Wallace that a noose had been found in his garage stall at Talladega. NASCAR made that discovery public Sunday night in a strong statement that threatened a lifelong ban for the perpetrator. NASCAR called in the FBI on Monday morning to investigate the case.
Yet in the hours after federal investigators ruled Tuesday that the noose had been in the garage stall for nine months, NASCAR’s only Black driver has been left alone to answer questions about an incident that doesn’t directly involve him. NASCAR has remained silent.
President Steve Phelps — the man who informed Wallace of the noose’s existence — issued an approximately five-minute statement on Tuesday afternoon after the FBI and U.S. Attorney for the Northern District of Alabama announced no hate crime charges would be filed because the noose had been in the garage since at least October and was not targeted at Wallace. But Phelps took no questions and NASCAR only promised that he’d speak again and answer inquiries about NASCAR’s ongoing investigation at an unspecified “later date.”
That later date is already too late.
Wallace has already become an extremely unfair target for social media criticism. Those somehow upset with NASCAR’s efforts to out racism from its series or simply trolling for attention have bombarded Wallace with slurs and threats and claims that the noose the FBI and U.S. Attorney said three times was a noose was not a noose. Or that the lack of federal charges in the incident somehow means it was all a hoax that Wallace was in on a la Jussie Smollett.
Those claims are absurd.
Wallace never saw the noose on Sunday. He couldn’t access the garage. He told CNN Tuesday night that he was planning to head to dinner when Phelps called him and initially thought he was in trouble for something he said. He even said that he talked to his crew before the discovery became public to make sure that the possibility of a hate crime was legitimate.
“I’m pissed,” Wallace said on CNN. “I’m mad because people trying to test my character and the person that I am and my integrity. And they’re not stealing that away from me, but they’re trying to test that.”
Wallace had no obligation to make an appearance on CNN Tuesday or CBS or NBC or ESPN on Wednesday morning. But it’s entirely understandable why he did those interviews. He wanted to get his side of Sunday and Monday’s story out and defend himself against unjust attacks. We’d all want to do the same thing. Especially if we were getting flooded with baseless accusations.
But Phelps or someone with NASCAR needs to be playing defense too. While NASCAR’s actions were clearly aimed to support Wallace and root out the racism it’s recently started to speak out against, those same actions have ultimately put Wallace in an untenable position. It’s not his defense to play alone
Wallace needs NASCAR with him. A five-minute statement on a phone call with reporters and the promise to answer questions later doesn’t cut it in a social media and video-based news world while Wallace is doing television interviews.
Phelps or someone from NASCAR should have been with Wallace in every single one of those interviews stating unequivocally that Wallace had nothing to do with the noose and repeating how Phelps was the one who informed Wallace of what happened.
It’s not complicated. Even if it would be a little uncomfortable and even embarrassing given Tuesday’s findings.
In his statement Tuesday afternoon, Phelps defended NASCAR’s actions after the noose’s discovery and said its leadership would repeat its same processes if they got a do-over.
What those processes are, however, are publicly unclear, even if NASCAR’s intentions to confront racism do seem to be clear. And NASCAR realizes that. It’s not going to be easy to explain how 15 FBI agents were called in to investigate a noose that was found to be in the same garage stall when NASCAR visited Talladega in October. It’s going to be a complicated story whenever NASCAR hopefully decides to give it.
But the position that Wallace has found himself in over the past three weeks isn’t easy either. The burden to speak out against racial injustice is a shared one for Black athletes in other sports. Wallace is alone at the top of American auto racing.
Heck if it wasn’t for his efforts to prod others in the industry to speak out against systemic racism in the days and weeks after George Floyd’s killing in Minneapolis, it’s fair to wonder if NASCAR would have gone through with its Confederate flag ban on June 10.
That ban was a big reason why NASCAR would have been on edge for its first race weekend in Alabama since the flag was outlawed from tracks. The circumstances of the weekend were obvious to anyone who saw the Confederate flag that flew over the track on Sunday and the trucks outside the track with flags throughout the weekend.
Those circumstances helped lead to the huge show of support that Wallace got from his fellow competitors on Monday as NASCAR and the FBI investigation continued in the garage. Drivers and team members walked down pit road with Wallace’s car past an “I Stand With Bubba” hashtag painted in the grass.
“It's one of the most kind of indelible print on my mind until the day I die, seeing the support that Bubba had from not just the drivers but all the crews, all the officials who were down in pit road, anyone who was part of that footprint,” Phelps said Tuesday. “Everyone wanted to show their support for a family member of NASCAR. We are one big family. We are one large community. And everyone's belief is that someone was attacking a member of our family.”
That belief should still exist. While the investigation at Talladega yielded no evidence of a hate crime against Wallace, a quick scan of his mentions on social media makes it clear that he’s now the victim of online attacks in a different form. The need for a grandiose display of public defense and support hasn’t gone away.
But NASCAR’s leadership has yet to provide it.
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Nick Bromberg is a writer for Yahoo Sports.
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