Kurt Busch became the first driver to be suspended from NASCAR for domestic assault last week, but the response to his suspension has been quiet compared to last year’s uproar over the NFL’s treatment of Ray Rice’s domestic violence case.
ESPN pundit Stephen A. Smith said that he believes the relative lack of interest in Busch’s case is partially due to his race. “I want to highlight something … that black folks, myself included, have lamented for many, many years,” Smith said on ESPN's First Take before listing a handful of cases of prominent black NFL players receiving what he implied was more attention than Busch for domestic violence allegations. “Where’s the public outcry? Where’s the story circulating for days upon days upon days at a time?”
Smith acknowledged that the NFL is more popular than NASCAR racing, but still felt a racial bias was at play.
“It’s the level of fervor that comes into play when one of these black athletes are put out there front and center for alleged transgressions,” he said. “I think it should be the same across the board and there should be a healthy uproar no matter what, and I just didn’t get the sense that this existed here with Kurt Busch.”
While it’s true that the response to Busch has been more muted than the response to Rice, there are several reasonable explanations other than race. First, as Smith’s fellow commentator Skip Bayless noted in the video, the reaction to Ray Rice's case only really reached a boiling point when video was released of the attack. While the Rice tape shouldn’t have been necessary to create the backlash that it did, that’s how it played out, and one could probably point to a bias in favor of athletes to explain this fact.
Still, it’s true that, as Smith notes, black athletes are often unfairly tarnished as “thugs” for behavior that is not even comparable to what Busch is alleged to have done.
“It seems to be highlighted when black folks get themselves in trouble, but when other people get themselves in trouble, we don’t hear the same kind of noise,” he said. “Then black folks who have never committed any kind of domestic violence whatsoever get painted with a negative brush because of how they sound.”
The larger bias that has prevented Busch from becoming a bigger story, however, is probably the cultural bias of mainly East Coast national journalists against NASCAR racing. The sport is more popular in Midwest and the South, particularly among older and whiter audiences. Coastal journalists who don’t follow the sport, don’t know it well, and don’t identify with its audiences are less likely to make a big deal out of any NASCAR story, even one as bizarre as Busch’s. The fact that it’s easier to identify Ray Rice as an important NFL star worth covering than it is to identify Busch as one, and that NASCAR is much less popular than the NFL, is likely the greater bias that has kept the Busch story from blowing up nationally.