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Nascar Takes Lead on Women's Issues

Kavitha A. Davidson is a former Bloomberg View columnist.
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Don't look now, but Nascar is suddenly appearing very progressive on women's issues in sports.

The traditionally conservative league quickly suspended driver Kurt Busch indefinitely after a court ruled he had "committed an act of domestic violence" against his ex-girlfriend. The ruling granted the victim a protective order and described the attack in graphic detail, concluding that Busch had strangled her "by placing his left hand on her throat, while placing his right hand on her chin and face and smashing her head into the wall of his motor home." 

Nascar handed down its penalty within an hour of the report on Friday, and upheld it by rejecting Busch's final appeal Saturday night, just before Sunday afternoon's Daytona 500.

In the post-Ray-Rice world, the National Football League's disciplinary process is the extremely low bar against which all such cases are judged. So we praised the National Basketball Association for suspending Jeff Taylor, and we now praise Nascar for punishing Busch in a process that took just two days and wasn't hampered by consideration that the biggest event of the year was hours away. And Nascar didn't even need a video. (Roger Goodell, take note.)

With those comparisons should come an understanding of just how lucky these other leagues are that they rank lower in the American sports consciousness than the NFL -- that their past failures to discipline players have gone under the radar until now. Before Taylor's suspension, at least 10 NBA players facing domestic violence charges received no penalties from the league. Meanwhile, Busch's suspension is the first Nascar has ever given for domestic violence. In 2013, BK Racing's Travis Kvapil was arrested and charged with assault and false imprisonment after he attacked his wife. He continued to race for the remainder of the year, and pleaded guilty to the charges last January.

It's telling that I had trouble finding coverage of any domestic-violence incidents involving Nascar drivers before Kvapil, and the Busch story has been relatively absent from the national conversation, despite seeming to be tailor-made for the tabloids. (Among the more bizarre details to come out were Busch's allegations that his ex-girlfriend is a trained assassin whose specialty is neutralizing drug lords and that she was one of the people who captured Saddam Hussein.)

ESPN's Stephen A. Smith is particularly miffed at the lack of public outcry over Busch, at least compared to Ray Rice, saying it is due to Busch's being white. The race factor could be an interesting discussion, but true to form, Smith -- he of the "women shouldn't provoke their attackers" hot take -- ruins things by missing any semblance of nuance. It's certainly true that black athletes face disproportionate criticism for off-the-field offenses, and the discussion of their transgressions often shifts from the individual to broader problems within the black community. (Smith himself has been quite guilty of this, as when he tried to paint Josh Gordon as the poster boy for black pathology.)

Smith also misses a key component of the Rice case -- that the victim, too, was black. Much of the coverage of Rice came from advocates who noted the higher instance of domestic violence against minority women; it wasn't just about singling out an attacker who was black. Race might be a factor here, but it's in no way as simple as Smith makes it out to be.

Still, perhaps the biggest reason for the lack of buzz around Busch is how little the mainstream press cares about his sport. The NFL's overwhelming popularity, across geographic and demographic lines, brings it greater public scrutiny while at the same time allowing it to make huge errors, because people will simply keep watching. Meanwhile, Nascar's narrow fanbase continues to shrink, with ratings and attendance in steady decline over the past decade. (Sunday's Daytona 500 pulled in higher ratings than last year's weather-mired broadcast, but viewership dropped significantly from 2013.) And as Slate's Jeremy Stahl notes, the national sports media is still largely East Coast-centric and has little interest in covering a sport whose popularity rests mostly in the Midwest and the South.

Furthermore, it's possible that Busch's case isn't getting much play precisely because Rice's case did. That leagues are properly addressing domestic violence and avoiding the NFL's missteps is in part a function of the sustained outrage over Rice. Nascar, which (surprise!) has the highest share of female fans among American sports, seems to have learned that the best way to avoid a PR disaster is to act as swiftly as it did in punishing Busch.

That's why it's important for fans and commentators to keep talking about domestic violence, especially when it comes to niche sports like racing: to keep in mind the countless victims who don't get justice because their husbands aren't famous enough. 

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of Bloomberg View's editorial board or Bloomberg LP, its owners and investors.

To contact the author on this story:
Kavitha A. Davidson at kdavidson19@bloomberg.net

To contact the editor on this story:
Tobin Harshaw at tharshaw@bloomberg.net