Last week, during the ESPY (Excellence in Sports Performance Yearly) Awards, a football player for the Seattle Seahawks, Golden Tate, unleashed a firestorm in Twitter, which quickly made its way to the media. The spark? In response to five-time NASCAR champion Jimmie Johnson’s nomination for Male Athlete of the Year, Tate tweeted “Jimmy johnson up for best athlete???? Um nooo .. Driving a car does not show athleticism.” (There's Jimmie with the ESPY he did win for best driver.)
Now, part of the problem with this situation is the source. Golden Tate (no disrespect to his ability on the playing field) is, perhaps, easy to make fun of, having recently broken into a donut shop because of an overwhelming need for maple bars. Really. Not to mention the bad grammar, spelling, and punctuation of his tweets (hey, I’m a writer, these things matter to me).
And in our current age, it’s really easy for anyone with a computer to toss out an opinion—often vituperative—whether in an article, blog, tweet, or comment. So the twitterverse quickly responded to Tate—and it wasn’t just NASCAR fans responding, but fans of all kinds of racing, amateur and pro drivers, and reporters who cover the sport. Plus, of course, those who agreed with him.
In the end, Tate backtracked, saying “I'm not saying NASCAR isn't hard I'm just saying u don't have to be athletic to do that...” and following it up later in a radio interview, saying, “I did read up and educate myself, and I will say this: They are incredible people to do that. After reading up on it I do have respect and I do want to apologize to NASCAR nation.”
Here’s my take. I think of drivers and golfers the same way. Does being professional driver/golfer require being an Olympic-level decathlete? No. Will you be better at it if you’re fit and strong and have a lot of endurance? Absolutely, yes. I have seen plenty of drivers with pot-bellies or who look like they’d have trouble running a couple miles. But the drivers I know, both pro and amateur (and I’ve met quite a few), are some of the fittest people I’ve ever seen. They run marathons and triathlons in their spare time. (Oh, and do you see that photo of Tony Kanaan, IndyCar driver? Tell me he’s not an athlete.)
Do they have the dexterity and athleticism of a top-level basketball player (the comparison Tate was making)? Perhaps not. But for two, three, or four hours at a time, their heartrates are raised, they’re withstanding high g-forces, they’re sitting in a 100-degree sauna, and they’re maintaining the kind of focus required of a fighter pilot—where the slightest lapse of attention can have dramatic consequences. All while they’re going up to 200 miles per hour, just inches away from dozens of other cars.
You can call it athleticism or not. But I certainly do.