When the editors of ESPN The Magazine pitched the idea of The Debate Issue, one of the proposed stories was to select the great debaters from throughout the world of sports. They were looking for those athletes who regularly engage in back-and-forth discussions with anyone and everyone, be it fans, rivals or league officials.
Writers from other sports threw out suggestions such as Dallas Mavericks owner Mark Cuban, Philadelphia Eagles wide receiver DeSean Jackson and Philadelphia Phillies closer Jonathan Papelbon.
When I was asked for a motorsports suggestion, I never hesitated -- Brad Keselowski.
Almost as soon as he strapped into a NASCAR Camping World Truck Series ride in 2004, he earned a rep for not backing down. Keselowski has engaged in headline-making feuds with the likes of Carl Edwards and Denny Hamlin, and most recently drew the ire of NASCAR, not to mention a "secret fine," for comments made about the new electronic fuel injection system during a fan Q&A this past fall.
Over the years, Keselowski's confrontations have evolved from raw to refined. Discussions can become so cerebral that they leave other drivers scratching their heads. He has been known to get NASCAR officials completely turned around during "city hall" meetings in the big yellow office trailer. And he engages his Twitter followers (nearly 269,000 as of midweek) in hearty debate on a near-daily basis.
Just this week, he philosophically tweeted: "I like to think of twitter as a conversation, not a request hotline or advertising tool. The best feeds don't require sorting thru gimmicks."
Two weeks ago, I chatted with the 28-year-old at his Mooresville, N.C., race shop, having just wrapped up a photo shoot for our great debaters feature. To make room for the other athletes, The Mag was able to give us only a few paragraphs. So here is the director's cut of our conversation. Spoiler alert: It gets kind of deep.
Ryan McGee: So do you understand the premise of what we're talking about here?
Brad Keselowski: That I'm a "great debater," meaning that I don't back down to controversy as it pertains to the sport and my opinions.
RM: Do you think that's fair?
RM: Would you put yourself in that category?
BK: Yes, I would.
RM: Is debating something that you enjoy?
BK: Yes. I enjoy debate. Not as much as I enjoy being unique in my own person, my own sense of the world. I'll say this once, and I've said before, over and over and over, and I'll keep saying it until someone gets what it means, and that is I would rather be true to myself and say things that may not be popular to everyone than try to go out and appease everyone and mean nothing to anyone, including myself. I'm a big believer in that.
RM: I would say that, from the outside, your reputation is pretty true to that. You speak your mind; you don't give a damn what other people think. Do you feel like others see you that way? Has that helped you build this massive fan base of yours on Twitter?
BK: Are you saying I've got street cred? [Laughs.] I think I do have street cred. I've been critical of NASCAR, and I've gotten into some trouble for that. The most recent was when I made some comments to fans about not liking our new EFI system. That didn't make the folks in Daytona very happy, but it led to real, honest debates with the people who run our sport. There are great things about our sport, but there are also some serious problems. You have to address both.
[NASCAR chairman] Brian [France] likes to say when you own a restaurant, you shouldn't say the food is bad because then people won't go back there to eat anymore. I always counter him by saying -- and this is true -- every restaurant I go to, I ask the waitress what's good there and then I ask, "What's the worst thing on the menu?" If they can't answer that question, I can't trust them to tell me what's good. It's a credibility read. When you're in Kansas, you want to hear, "Well, the worst thing is the seafood because there ain't a f---ing ocean within a thousand miles of here. Where do you think it came from?" Those are the people I appreciate, man. Give me honesty. That's who I want to be, whether the NASCAR brass gets upset with it or not. And they do.
RM: You want the bad news with the good news.
BK: It's just a personality read. It's a credibility read. So the brass will get upset when I say so-and-so is the worst there is, but I'm not afraid to follow that up with so-and-so is the best there is. Whether it's something in our series or something NASCAR does or just something in our sport in general. But in order to have any credibility, for a compliment or for a particular taste, then you have to be able to counterpoint it with something that's not the best it can be. That's how you have credibility. So when you talk about street cred, that's what I think of.
RM: Have you always been like that?
BK: Yeah, I think I was always like that. But I do think that as I get older, I've started to realize that people sugarcoat things, especially in the sports world. I have to put a higher value on authenticity and honesty.
RM: Has there been a debate that stands out in your mind that was particularly fun or intense? With another driver, NASCAR, fans ...
BK: Every damn week! I don't know how to pick one. [Laughs.] My mom will tell you that I've argued with her since the day I was born. I guess I just love to argue. But I don't love to argue just for the sake of arguing. I like to argue for the sake of expanding one's mind. Pushing boundaries of what you think is real. What concepts do you hold true?
RM: You're looking to expand your mind, but are you also looking to expand the mind of the person across the table?
BK: Absolutely. I'm a big believer in growth in everything I do. The largest areas for growth aren't tangible; they're mental. That's not something you can count or put a measuring stick to. But in order to find them, I think, debate is really healthy. It's how you open your mind.
RM: Have you enjoyed Twitter as a way to debate back and forth with fans?
BK: Oh yeah. That's one of the best parts of it.
RM: So with 200,000-plus followers, you get a lot of people wanting to debate.
BK: Oh yeah. Absolutely.
RM: So what's your criteria for choosing who you're going to go back and forth with?
BK: You know what appealed to me about Twitter more than anything else? I felt there were certain people in the media that would write stories with only a portion of the facts. And I don't like that, man. I want to tell the full story and let people make their mind up. It seems like they would skew the facts or the stats or whatever the hell it might be to fit their side of the story. I hate that.
RM: Are you talking about me, man?
BK: It's not one person. [Smiles.]
RM: Do you feel like using that tool has allowed you to help some of those people with that problem?
BK: If nothing else, it makes me feel better. Maybe one or two people have seen more of the story. Maybe not. But hopefully I help a few people out there see there's more to what they might have read.
RM: Your feuds with other drivers, would you consider those debates?
BK: Oh, yeah, absolutely. They just happen to get a little more physical. [Laughs.]
RM: As much as you enjoy a good argument or conversation, when it plays out in public like that, is it different for you?
BK: It's different because you start to see other people's biases come into play. Either for your side or against. Again, I hate that. I hate it when people look at things I do and they say I'm right or wrong simply based on whether they like me or not, not based on the substance of what I've actually done or said. I don't like that. Whether it's a fan of mine who supports me no matter what I do or a fan of another guy who perceives that I've done something against them, there's not a lot of honesty there either way.
RM: Everything you say sounds to me like you believe that the key to any good debate, a real debate, is that everyone has all the information they need.
BK: Knowledge is power. I know that's a cliche, but it's also the damn truth. It's a great saying. And if you argue the right way, not just cheap shots, really discuss and debate and listen, then there's an exchange of knowledge on both sides. You might not change my mind and I might not change yours. We probably aren't going to do that. But at least we might learn something. We can walk away smarter because we argued, debated. I'm about being smarter, man.
RM: And all about doing the great service of making the other guy smarter, too ...
BK: [Laughs.] Yeah, exactly.