Tate questioned five-time NASCAR Sprint Cup champion Jimmie Johnson as a legitimate candidate for the ESPY as Best Male Athlete.
"Driving a car does not show athleticism," Tate tweeted.
Tate quickly found himself on the defensive. Johnson himself re-tweeted comments from racing reporter Jeff Gluck calling Tate ignorant. Tate apologized, but the backlash against him continued. Gluck picked apart Tate's comments early Thursday.
Tate took the wrong tack in a debate that could use better focus. There's no sense in questioning whether Johnson or other drivers should qualify as athletes. Racing is a sport. Drivers must keep their edge while operating under extremely demanding conditions, risking their lives to a degree unimaginable in most other sports.
Instead of questioning athleticism, I'll propose the following distinctions between athletes for the purposes of this conversation:
The physical barriers to participation in the NFL and NBA are higher than physical barriers in racing. That doesn't mean NFL or NBA athletes could compete successfully at racing's highest levels. They would likely find the sport extremely demanding in ways unimaginable to them. But if the 100 best football players spent five years training as drivers while the 100 best drivers spent five years training as football players, I suspect the football players would be closer to competing admirably in their new sport.
It's possible for top racing drivers to remain competitive well past their physical primes. Mark Martin and Ronnie Lott are both 52 years old. Martin is ranked 19th in the NASCAR Sprint Cup standings. Lott last played in 1995. Different sports place different physical demands upon athletes.
Tate scored points, I thought, for noting that it's easier to train a competitive driver than to train someone to run 40 yards in 4.5 seconds. That does nothing to disqualify racing drivers from consideration for "best athlete" awards, however. Dirk Nowitzki beat out Johnson for the ESPY, but athleticism wasn't the only measure. Quite a few NBA players are more athletic than Nowitzki. That did not make them better candidates for the award.