Tate's take a common one in sports

CHARLOTTE, N.C. -- Golden Tate isn't a bad guy out to disrespect NASCAR while passing time during the NFL lockout. He was quite humble talking about the firestorm he created last week by questioning the athleticism of five-time Sprint Cup champion Jimmie Johnson during the ESPYs.

In case you forgot or never saw, the Seattle Seahawks wide receiver wrote on Twitter, "Jimmy Johnson up for best athlete????? Um nooo … Driving a car does not show athleticism."

It's not the first time somebody has said that and it won't be the last. People who aren't familiar with motorsports -- and Tate wasn't judging by his spelling of Johnson's first name with a "y" -- make the natural assumption that because a car is involved and there's no visible physical activity, that drivers aren't athletes.

One could make a similar assumption -- minus the car -- about British Open champion Darren Clarke, whose potbelly and cigarettes don't fit the traditional picture of an athlete.

Tate is programmed like many to think a person has to be able to run or jump or catch beyond the capabilities of a normal person to be considered an athlete. It is hard for him to comprehend how somebody driving a car in circles could be considered in the same breath as one that can dunk, hit a 100 mph pitch or catch a football in traffic.

He simply made an innocent observation based on that when he wondered out loud on Twitter how Johnson should be up for ESPN's male athlete of the year with Dallas Mavericks star Dirk Nowitzki, tennis' Rafael Nadal and Green Bay Packers quarterback Aaron Rodgers.

For that, NASCAR Nation pounded him.

"Man, I got grilled from NASCAR country," Tate said by phone. "I honestly think every single person who follows NASCAR tweeted something at me, and they weren't too happy about it."

There are certain things that strike the anger chord in every sport. Saying drivers aren't athletes is one of them in NASCAR.

And while you may disagree with Tate's theory, you should respect his right to express his opinion.

You also should respect that he's taken the time to learn more about the sport, albeit much of his knowledge has been force fed by fans who took offense. Tate estimates he's had close to 2,000 responses to his tweet, and few were to show support.

"These people are very, very passionate about NASCAR," Tate said. "I'm still catching heat from it right now. I have no room to criticize anyone who is dominant at their profession, especially with me not being dominant in mine or accomplishing what I plan to yet.

"I should have just not said anything."

Be thankful he did. It brought up an issue that comes up from time to time, usually because of a comment like Tate's. It makes for good debate. It makes us look at what an athlete is.

An athlete, by definition, is: "A person possessing the natural or acquired traits, such as strength, agility, and endurance, that are necessary for physical exercise or sports, especially those performed in competitive context."

Those uneducated on motorsports will say it doesn't take those things to navigate a race car. They'll argue their grandmother can drive.

But as Tate has learned in the past week it takes more to maneuver a car at close to 200 mph in temperatures well over 100 degrees and make snap decisions with other cars within centimeters of yours than one might think.

He has learned that the physical stress of a driver equals or surpasses those in other sports, that the hand-eye coordination it takes to compete at the top level is not much different than a receiver needs to compete in the NFL.

He's still not ready to put the athletic ability of a driver on par with an NFL or NBA player. He will tell you it's easier to teach a normal person to drive a race car than to teach them to dunk a basketball.

But he's coming around.

"The only thing I was saying is I can see the athleticism in Dirk or whoever else was up for [the ESPY]," Tate said. "Me not being educated on NASCAR, at first glance I'm not seeing this guy doing anything supernormal."

It's all about education. Andy Papathanassiou, a former Stanford offensive lineman who oversees the strength and conditioning training of all pit crews at Hendrick Motorsports, is a firm believer in that.

Say a driver isn't an athlete and he'll give you a 30-minute dissertation on what makes motorsports a competition in the same realm as football and basketball, and then tell you that drivers are "100 percent athletes."

He'll tell you that a driver's heart rate goes to 80 percent of the maximum the heart can beat, along the lines of a marathon runner. He'll tell you the G-forces a driver experiences put so much stress and pressure on the lungs and rib cage "that if they didn't learn how to breath correctly at certain times they would pass out."

"Because you don't see the blood, sweat and tears in a driver because he's wearing a firesuit and a helmet and you see only the outside of the car, you don't see or experience what a human being is going through on the inside of that," Papathanassiou said.

Papathanassiou also will tell you the reason Johnson and other drivers such as Carl Edwards dominate is because they're in unbelievable shape. Put that with the competitive nature of the sport and he'll argue till the cows come home that they are athletes.

They always have been, even in the day when David Pearson often drove with one hand and smoked a cigarette with the other, which is impressive on a whole other level. Back in those days working out wasn't deemed necessary as it is today, just as many football players didn't work out year round then as they do now.

"The bottom line in any sport is getting the job done," Papathanassiou said. "It they don't happen to work out, it doesn't make them any less of a professional athlete."

If I've said something to offend anyone, I'll be the first person to apologize sincerely and move on. It's a controversial subject, obviously. Everybody has their views on it. Lesson learned for me.

-- Golden Tate

But if you look at the top drivers in the sport today you'll see most are in excellent shape. From points leader Edwards and second-place Johnson to 52-year-old Mark Martin, you'll be hard pressed to find athletes in any sport that physically prepare more.

Edwards recently went through a series of tests with John Brenkus and the ESPN Sports Science team that'll give you an idea of how athletic he is. It was determined that the cardiovascular fitness of the driver that celebrates wins with a backflip is on par with elite marathon runners and cyclists.

"There are still a lot of people out there who hold on to the misconception that NASCAR drivers are just guys who climb into their cars, floor it and make a lot of left-hand turns," Brenkus wrote in a recent blog. "The fact is, these guys are phenomenal athletes whose sport requires incredible strength, endurance and lightning-fast reaction times.

" … NASCAR drivers are some of the best athletes on the planet."

Tate still doesn't fully comprehend how that can be. If you introduced him to Tony Stewart he might be even more confused unless you compared Stewart to a fullback or offensive lineman.

But Tate's willing to learn. He wants to come to a race, shake Johnson's hand and say, "Brother, no disrespect. You've accomplished everything I would love to in my sport."

Johnson would love to meet Tate.

"I have no hard feelings," said Johnson, the 2009 Associated Press male athlete of the year. "I don't like it when people express their opinion without knowing. So if he comes and finds that we're not athletes and has a different opinion if he was to attend a race, that's fine.

"Everybody is entitled to their own opinion."

Tate certainly gave his, but admittedly will think twice before again tweeting something that might be offensive.

"If I've said something to offend anyone, I'll be the first person to apologize sincerely and move on." Tate said. "It's a controversial subject, obviously. Everybody has their views on it.

"Lesson learned for me."

But the debate will continue.

David Newton covers NASCAR for ESPN.com. He can be reached at dnewtonespn@aol.com.