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Wednesday, August 15
NFL handled Stringer tragedy correctly
By Jack Arute

Dale Earnhardt's death has produced changes in worlds beyond just NASCAR. It has become a case study for how not to handle things.

Face it. Earnhardt's death was a shock. Millions watched with little horror as the seven-time Winston Cup champion crashed in Turn 4 at Daytona International Speedway on the final lap of the Daytona 500. He'd hit the wall before. It was Dale Earnhardt, NASCAR's toughest customer. But once the announcement was made that Earnhardt had died, the sport, its fans and people who heretofore thought NASCAR was the brand of car guys like Earnhardt raced, struggled to make sense of it all.

NASCAR stepped up quickly. First, you thought they had changed. You couldn't help but feel for NASCAR President Mike Helton when he said that not only had NASCAR lost one of its greatest drivers ever, but that he had lost a very good friend.

But then as racing buried its fallen hero, things began to unravel. NASCAR prolonged the agony and uncertainty by quickly reducing the frequency of news conferences regarding its investigation. Innuendo and supposition rolled along unchecked. Separated seat belts, closed coroner's reports, sealed autopsy photos ... did someone whisper Watergate?

On Aug. 21 in Atlanta, NASCAR hopes to end a six-month journey that has included court-appointed reports, emergency rescue workers' allegations of a cover-up and the resignation -- from a company he founded -- by one of this country's foremost safety equipment manufacturers. It will certainly reduce the number of silent Lap 3 tributes that frequent every Winston Cup race. On Aug. 21 NASCAR will issue their formal report into Earnhardt's death.

"What I see is a new NASCAR," says Ray Evernham, Dodge's point man and former crew chief for Jeff Gordon. "They're really going in the right direction as far as getting as many opinions and the best opinions out there."

But, one wonders, what if NASCAR had done as the NFL has with the death of Minnesota Viking offensive tackle Korey Stringer?

After an emotion filled news conference, Dennis Green and his team buried Stringer, sewed No. 77 commemorative patches on their uniforms and proceeded to trash their the first preseason opponent, the New Orleans Saint, 28-21.

NFL commissioner Paul Tagliabue quickly controlled things. After Stringer was buried, Tagliabue told the world he saw no reason to change the way NFL teams practice.

"Of all the medical issues we talk to players about and that the players have raised, heat and how we deal with heat has not been among them," Tagliabue said.

He went on and assured us that despite the fact it was not considered an issue, his staff would informally investigate things. Tagliabue was pro-active. NASCAR, on the other hand, was reactive.

I'm sure the NFL watched NASCAR and examined how the sanctioning body that has touted themselves as an NFL clone handled Earnhardt's death. I would not be surprised to learn the NFL made notes on what not to do if they ever found themselves in a similar situation. It certainly must account for the carefully crafted end statement the NFL issued regarding the loss of Stringer.

"You can intellectualize about the risk of the game, you can understand all the risks theoretically, but you never expect to lose a player, have a player die playing the game," Tagliabue said. "It's our obligation now to try to learn from that."

God forbid NASCAR or any other racing body must suffer another devastating loss. But, if they do, they would be well served to save Tagliabue's quote and use it as a road map to navigate through the tragedy.

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