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Sports Verdict: Should NASCAR Drivers Be Considered True Athletes?

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By Christian S. Kohl

In the wake of Jimmie Johnson securing his 6th NASCAR Sprint Cup Series Championship, Donovan McNabb expressed his belief that NASCAR drivers are not true athletes. Is he out of line, or is this type of racing in no way a sport?

What constitutes a sport or athlete rests squarely in the mind of each individual fan. In my mind, in order to be an athlete, one must be competing in a sport, and not a game. So this question boils down more toward the definition of sport before we can decide if NASCAR drivers are athletes.


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Certain, activities, we shall call them for now, rest squarely on the border between sport and game. Golf, bowling, etc are often referred to as sports, but in my mind they are games. Much like a professional pool player, the perfection of a given technique or set of technique far outweighs the need for any athletic ability. Which is why competitors can participate in any of these games at the highest level while being in horrible physical condition and doing nothing even vaguely reminiscent of athleticism.

In my mind, sports requires quick thinking, fast reflexes, conditioning, and a high IQ for the given activity. It doesn’t have to involve a 400 lb bench, but something intensely competitive that the average person cannot do without unlimited practice puts us more within the boundaries of sport than game. Anyone willing to invest thousands of hours into pool could become a professional pool player. The same cannot be said about a man tasked with the duties of guarding LeBron James.

Moreover, to claim NASCAR is a sport now in a sense puts all other forms of racing on the chopping block as sports. Would anyone claim Usain Bolt or Michael Phelps is not an athlete? They are the textbook definitions of athletes, so it’s not the racing element that bothers some “purists.” The bothersome element is that much of NASCAR involves the debatable lack of agency of its stars. Michael Phelps powers Michael Phelps through the pool. A car powers Jimmie Johnson around the track, and therefore many feel he’s not an athlete.

With the reflexes, calculated risks, endurance, and focus required to complete a NASCAR race, I think it’s fair to say the average spectator could not even come close to replicating the performances these guys regularly turn in. The stakes are higher than in any other sport. A miscue can result in severe permanent injury and even death. Derek Jeter is not risking his life when fielding a ball in the hole. Yet the same lightning quick assessments, hand eye coordination and reflexes that he requires to make that jump throw are imperative for a NASCAR driver to possess or the worst could happen.

Just because NASCAR doesn’t have a ball or puck does not mean its competitors are not athletes. The competition is stiff, the event is dangerous, and requires a tremendous amount of exertion and effort in order to win. Donovan McNabb is wrong. Give Jimmie Johnson his due. The term athlete cannot simply be applied to only competitors in the events one likes.

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Christian S. Kohl is a sports contributor for CBS Local Digital Media.

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