|Monday, April 30
France keeps making PR mistakes
By Ray Ratto
Special to ESPN.com
With every new revelation of what did and didn't happen in the death of Dale Earnhardt at Daytona, NASCAR chairman Bill France Jr. takes on more of that furtive, shifty look that is usually found on small animals when surprised by a flashlight.
After all, this is largely what commissioners are for -- in the absence of real power, anyway.
David Stern has been taking the severest hits for the NBA's perceived decline in quality, ratings and all-around fun. Gary Bettman is the target of choice when the NHL's problems are raised. Bud Selig walks through baseball in this labor-intensive year wearing a "Kick Me" sign. Tim Finchem got on the wrong side of Tiger Woods, although he didn't get 200 years in the jug like the poor fool who got caught impersonating the emperor.
And Paul Tagliabue just spent a month in a courtroom with Al Davis. Now if that isn't unpaid vacation in Houston in the dead of summer, nothing is.
France, though, is taking his beating on an almost daily basis, largely because he seems unable to do anything more than lead with his face.
NASCAR, which had enjoyed an uninterrupted ride to the top of advertisers' hearts as it climbed into mainstream American consciousness, has been utterly unable (or, some suspect, unwilling) to get a handle on the circumstances surrounding Earnhardt's death Feb. 18.
As of today, 71 days after the fact, France -- in addition to NASCAR president Mike Helton -- still cannot reconcile NASCAR's version of events with NASCAR's previous versions of events, let alone those versions of events being provided by track rescue workers and biomedical experts.
And frankly, NASCAR's versions are being believed by fewer and fewer people with every passing day. France, and his spokespeople, are plainly overmatched here, and the corner into which he has painted himself is getting smaller and smaller.
As Selig would tell him based on his embarrassing experiences with the Major League Baseball Players Association, this is no way to spend an afternoon.
It is, however, what inevitably happens when the mighty fly too close to their particular suns. They begin to believe what they read and hear about themselves, which is also no way to spend an afternoon.
Stern has been found guilty of no longer having Michael Jordan to hide behind, which is, well, true. Bettman has been convicted of not growing hockey's TV profile, which was the reason he was brought into the job in the first place. Selig is trying to make baseball seem poorer than ever while attendances and revenues keep rising, a task for which neither he nor anyone else is suited.
And Paul Tagliabue just spent a month in a courtroom with Al Davis.
France, though, is watching it all deteriorate at, well, at NASCAR time. And the fault is largely his.
Earnhardt's death, after all, was that of an icon, and as such became a matter of the public domain. Too many people would ask too many questions of too many people, and rather than take the lead on the matter, NASCAR did what it has traditionally done -- kept it in-house and on a need-to-know-only basis. And nobody, in NASCAR's collective judgment, needed to know.
That might have worked with the death of any other drivers, drivers America hadn't recognized on sight. But not Earnhardt. Failing to recognize that, France has been stuck with a story that won't fly, and being a creature of habit, has decided to stand with it at the risk of his reputation and, if the heat becomes unbearable, his position as well.
This is what happens to the terminally inflexible. While Stern and Bettman can be imperious at times, they can bow when the wind requires it of them. Selig plays the avuncular regular-guy pretty well when confronted with an agreeable audience. Tagliabue, as well, knows how to slip a punch, and Finchem did the only thing he could do when confronted by a force of nature, and caved.
France, though, isn't getting it in a remarkable way. The moment rescue worker Tommy Propst, the man who said that Earnhardt's seatbelt was intact when he got to the accident, hit the Monday morning news show circuit, the stakes rose beyond France's ability to call.
It is unclear how, or if, France can escape the snare he has set for himself. None of his contemporaries in the thick-leather-chair set have been caught on the wrong side of an issue to this extent, because none of them have had France's tin ear.
But NASCAR's position with its true believers is so secure that he may ride out the problem by simply relying on the one friend a commissioner always has.
NASCAR had always been an independent nation of sorts, but only recently had it broken out of its corner of the continent. Even with the persistent bungling of the Earnhardt story, the sport still draws crowds that would make Tagliabue's hair bleed -- more than 115,000 in Fontana, Calif., Sunday.
With that kind of support and the relative silence of the drivers on the issue, France could survive. But it will be a Clintonesque victory, one in which people will remember what he could have and should have done, and regret what he did do.
That, too, is no way to spend an afternoon.
On the other hand, it sure beats spending a month in a courtroom with Al Davis.
Ray Ratto of the San Francisco Chronicle is a regular contributor to ESPN.com