Thursday, February 04, 2016

COMMENTARY: Stewart's Injury Gives Owners Cause For Concern

Stewart's timeline remains unclear

Tony Stewart suffered a burst fracture of his first lumbar vertebra Sunday while driving an off-road sand buggy in the California desert. He was transported to a local hospital and evaluated; awake and alert throughout the process and able to move all of his extremities. The former Sprint Cup Series champion flew to North Carolina Tuesday evening and was admitted to a Charlotte-area hospital, where he underwent surgery.  

Stewart will now miss the start of the Sprint Cup Series season in two weeks at Daytona International Speedway. A timetable for his return has not been determined, but his Stewart Haas Racing team says he is expected to return to competition in 2016.  

Stewart’s injury has once again focused the spotlight on NASCAR’s contractual policies, and what drivers are (and are not) allowed to do in their free time.

Professional sports franchises generally look to protect their investment by forbidding highly paid athletes from taking part in certain high-risk activities. In the National Basketball Association, standard player contracts specifically prohibit boxing, professional wrestling, motorcycles, mopeds, auto racing, skydiving and hang-gliding. NBA contracts expressly permit such tamer pursuits as swimming, hiking, golf, tennis, handball, softball and volleyball. 
The National Football League’s uniform player contract prohibits players from “any activity other than football which may involve a significant risk of personal injury.” Unfortunately, the word “significant” is open to significant debate and interpretation. One man’s hobby – say, wheeling a fire-breathing 410-cubic inch Sprint Car around a high-banked dirt track – is another man’s insanity. And what one team owner considers perfectly reasonable, another might forbid outright.
"Smoke" has been hurt before
Despite the use of standardized base contracts, NBA and NFL team owners can also add more specific language to individual agreements, as needed. Dallas Cowboys wide receiver Dez Bryant is infamous for his rambunctious personal life, and in the aftermath of repeated incidents of boorish behavior, the Cowboys mandated a strict “no-alcohol, no-strip club” policy in his 2012 contract, along with a midnight curfew. Those clauses reportedly remain in effect, to this day.
Major League Baseball teams are more specific in their guidelines. The New York Yankees once banned log-rolling in their standard player contracts, while the Washington Nationals routinely forbid players from piloting airplanes. 
In December of 1967, Boston Red Sox pitcher Jim Lonborg inadvertently added new verbiage to his teammates’ contracts when he tore ligaments in his left knee while skiing, just weeks after winning the American League Cy Young Award and finishing sixth in Most Valuable Player balloting. Lonborg was plagued by injury for the remainder of his career, winning only 27 games from 1968 to 1971.
In the 1990s, Baltimore Orioles shortstop Cal Ripken negotiated a clause in his contract allowing him to play pick-up basketball during the offseason; an activity in which other players were expressly prohibited from taking part in. Ripken, who built a basketball court in his home, called basketball an important part of his off-season conditioning program. For their part, the Orioles had a difficult time convincing anyone that Ripken -- the all-time record holder in consecutive games played -- comprised a significant risk of injury.
Compared to the so-called “stick and ball” sports, less is known about driver contracts in NASCAR. In our sport, drivers and teams function as independent contractors, with no commissioner or players’ union to negotiate on their behalf. As a result, drivers and teams are under no obligation to publicize the specifics of their respective deals.
A new, charter-based ownership model – if it occurs – will not alter that dynamic. Neither the Race Team Alliance nor the newly formed NASCAR Drivers’ Council function as unions, per se. Neither is authorized to negotiate contracts on behalf of its members, meaning that agreements between drivers and teams will remain private for the foreseeable future.
It is believed, however, that most NASCAR teams already include some sort of language in driver contracts, restricting hazardous off-track activity. We don’t see it, because the contracts are private. But like a ship passing in the night, it’s there.
One NASCAR national series driver, speaking on the condition of anonymity, recalled being forbidden to race anything not owned by his respective team owner. Unhappy, with that restriction, the driver requested that specific language be placed in his ensuing contracts, outlining exactly what was – and was not – allowed.
In most circumstances, a driver injured while taking part in an unapproved, off-track activity will also not be paid until he/she is healed, healthy and able to return. That, along with a high degree of responsibility to sponsors, keeps most NASCAR drivers on the straight and narrow, most of the time.
Clearly, however, accidents do still happen. And with hundreds of millions of dollars invested in a specific athlete, sponsors are not anxious to have their driver sidelined for any length of time.
Frisbee. No kidding.
In the aftermath of Sunday’s incident, Stewart will now miss at least a portion of the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series schedule for the third time in the last four seasons. In August of 2013, the Indiana native lost significant time after suffering a compound fracture of his right leg in a Sprint Car crash at an Iowa dirt track. One year later, Stewart’s Sprint Car struck and killed driver Kevin Ward, Jr., on an upstate New York dirt oval. The former series champion sat out a number of races following that incident, as well, and has struggled to return to competitive form since.
While Stewart’s sponsors have been overwhelmingly supportive through his hard times, make no mistake about it. They do not relish the possibility of beginning the 2016 campaign with “Smoke” on the sidelines.
Sponsors wield a great deal of clout in NASCAR, and Stewart is a perfect example of their influence. The Stewart Haas Racing driver has not strapped into a winged Sprint Car since Aug. 9, 2014, the night of Ward’s death. The psychological trauma associated with that incident certainly played a role in his decision to withdraw, for a time. But near the end of last season, as Stewart announced his impending retirement from NASCAR, he immediately declared his intention to “do a whole lot of Sprint Car racing” once again in 2017.
Stewart’s hiatus from Sprint Cars clearly has been at the request of his sponsors, as evidenced by his anxiousness to return immediately to the dirt tracks, once his NASCAR career is over. Freed from his multi-million dollar sponsor and team obligations, Stewart will soon get back to doing what he wants to do, instead of what he has to do.
Stewart is not the only NASCAR driver to be sidelined by off-track injury. Denny Hamlin has undergone two reconstructive knees surgeries in recent seasons; the result of his penchant for pickup basketball. Carl Edwards suffered a broken right foot while playing frisbee in late 2009, while multi-time series champion Jimmie Johnson broke his arm falling off a golf cart in 2010.
While golf and frisbee are unlikely to be added to the list of dangerous activities banned by NASCAR team owners, it will be interesting to see whether Stewart’s latest off-track incident affects the way NASCAR does business, going forward.


  1. Anonymous9:22 PM

    I took a walk around the world
    To ease my troubled mind
    I left my body lying somewhere
    In the sands of time
    But I watched the world float
    To the dark side of the moon

    I feel there is nothing I can do, yeah

    I watched the world float
    To the dark side of the moon
    After all I knew it had to be
    Something to do with you
    I really don’t mind what happens now and then
    As long as you’ll be my friend at the end

    If I go crazy then will you still
    Call me Superman
    If I’m alive and well, will you be
    There a-holding my hand
    I’ll keep you by my side
    With my superhuman might

    Three Doors Down

    Tony, as with so many mid-life athletes, still think they are indestructible. Caution is thrown to the wind in the name of fun and competition. Maybe one driver in NASCAR will learn a lesson from this and not go that extra mile to prove their manhood.