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Lawsuit's settlement means we'll never know fact from fiction

Was Mauricia Grant, a black female NASCAR official, sexually and racially harassed and discriminated against on numerous occasions by good ol' bigots in a sport long notorious for being nearly all white, nearly all male and historically Southern by culture?

Or was she an inept employee, fired for cause, turned gold digger, seeking her pound of flesh?

Or does the truth lie somewhere in between?

We, American society, will never know.

And that's unfair to us.

Case closed. Out-of-court settlement closed. Both sides happy, both say. Truth sealed from public scrutiny. Further truth unexplored, forever, never to reach open court.

We as a society try to learn and improve from such matters, and we can't.

Another lawsuit that was supposed to shake the foundations of NASCAR suddenly has gone silent for keeps.

Grant v. NASCAR is no more. Throw it in the back file marked "settled," along with would-be earth shakers of yore such as Richmond v. NASCAR, Ferko v. NASCAR, AT&T v. NASCAR … it's a pretty thick file.

There is no telling how much that dusty file has cost NASCAR in legal fees and settlements.

But at the bottom line, still, nobody has ever shaken NASCAR's foundations.

Adversaries have only threatened to, in court from time to time, citing profound American laws ranging from the Sherman Antitrust Act to the Civil Rights Act.

But in the end, in the settlements, the noble intentions with the social implications crumble in the face of pragmatism.

"Our client hadn't worked for a while and was looking for work," Benedict Morelli, Grant's attorney, told me on the phone Friday in explaining the plaintiff's motivation to settle. "We can't represent a cause; we have to represent a case."

NASCAR chairman Brian France did not respond immediately to my request for an interview on the settlement, and I was told not to count on a call back from him.

The settlement was at least on a more human level than the one in the suit of Texas Motor Speedway stockholder Francis Ferko, which originally cited noble intentions of antitrust action. But that element which "would probably go away," the lead attorney on that one, Johnnie Cochran, admitted to me, if NASCAR would award Texas a second Cup date annually.

The settlement gave Texas its second date, and the legal and financial maneuvering and meandering were such that NASCAR didn't really lose.

But the noble rationale of antitrust vanished that time, just as the noble rationale of civil rights vanished this time.

Thursday evening, 15 days after the fact of settlement -- and therefore deep into the holiday season with media activity in a lull -- NASCAR sent out a statement titled "Litigation Resolved."

Thus ended the $225 million federal lawsuit filed in the Southern District of New York in June by former NASCAR official Grant, a suit that had claimed 23 instances of sexual harassment and 34 instances of race and gender discrimination by her peers and supervisors.

Grant claimed she was fired in 2007 for complaining about the alleged harassment and discrimination. NASCAR maintained her firing was for cause and defended its human resources policies.

The case thunderously resurrected the specter of NASCAR's past, and it was a punch in the gut of NASCAR's overt efforts of recent years at ethnic and gender diversity.

Were NASCAR's right-minded efforts at the top being undermined in the rank and file, by low-level inspectors in the garages and pits at races? Grant claimed she was called derogatory, racial nicknames such as "Nappy Headed Mo" and "Queen Sheba."

Two officials she claimed had exposed themselves to her were fired after an internal human resources investigation by NASCAR. Morelli pointed that out, in thinking maybe the greater good will be served as a byproduct after all.

And maybe NASCAR will monitor its rank-and-file employees more closely to make sure throwbacks to bigotry don't rear their heads overtly in those ranks and files.

But the floodlights of open court, and the hammer of legal decision, are gone from the equation now.

The NASCAR statement of Thursday evening pointed out that "Neither NASCAR nor Ms. Grant admits liability or wrongdoing by way of the settlement."

The statement said the settlement would remain "confidential and both sides agreed not to publicly discuss the details of the case or the terms of the agreement … "

When I pressed Morelli for some ballpark idea of the amount of the settlement, he was steadfast: "It would be a breach of the agreement," he said.

I did get NASCAR's chief spokesman on such matters, Ramsey Poston, on his cell phone, but got a series of monosyllabic answers -- mostly "no" -- when I sought elaboration beyond his obligatory remarks in the prepared statement.

Without bogging down in the cheerful generalities of Poston or Morelli, let's just say both sides expressed great happiness with the arrangement.

So, although money changed hands to the satisfaction of both sides, the questions that had been raised in the minds of the public went unanswered.

Such kicking of enormous cans down the road has gone on for at least 20 years in litigation against NASCAR.

Could NASCAR legally bar a driver from racing on grounds that illegal substances showed up in his urinalysis, then admit later that the substances found were legal?

Tim Richmond challenged that in 1988, was rebuffed with a sealed settlement and kept his silence until his death of AIDS in 1989.

Can NASCAR tell teams what sponsors they may or may not have? AT&T challenged that in 2006-07. The settlement came to light -- AT&T could have one more year, 2008, sponsoring Jeff Burton, then AT&T was out.

But the fundamental question of dictating sponsorships to independent contractors (teams) went unsettled.

NASCAR doesn't lose landmark cases. NASCAR settles before the large questions are resolved.

All that's clear is that it's nice to have an army of lawyers, and more legions of lawyers in reserve, and pockets of untold depth to pay the bills.

NASCAR is of course a family business, private, its books untouchable from the outside.

For a company totally dependent on the public -- the fans, the ticket buyers -- for its birth and very existence for 60 years, NASCAR remains, at its innermost, the most unknowable sports league there is.

Ed Hinton is a senior writer for ESPN.com. He can be reached at edward.t.hinton@espn3.com.