I was sitting on a couch at home with my son Sunday morning when an alert popped up on my cellphone just after 7 a.m. It said that NASCAR driver Tony Stewart had hit and killed another driver at a dirt track race.
My immediate reaction was, “Oh, no!” (That is the printable version.)
Having previously been a sportswriter and a sports editor at The Republic, I know how much Stewart means to people in his hometown of Columbus. Having covered all three of his NASCAR championships and one of his two Brickyard 400 wins, I know he has a huge fan base and is loved by many here.
So I knew this news would be shocking in Columbus and everywhere. Far more so than when he wrecked last year at a track in Iowa and busted his leg.
After notifying the paper’s other news editors and posting an Associated Press story of the incident to the homepage of therepublic.com, I had time to think about how this might play out. One of my first thoughts was that some people would immediately tie this incident to the “bad boy” image he has carried — fairly or unfairly — for much of his
NASCAR career because of run-ins with fellow drivers or the media.
I know of at least one TV station that mentioned his previous incidents in conjunction with Saturday’s tragedy. How fair is it, though, to associate this incident with his actions in the past? Doing so suggests that Stewart had malicious intent on the track and that he intentionally struck Kevin Ward Jr. As I write this column, no criminal charges have been filed against Stewart. Investigators with the Ontario County (New York) Sheriff’s Department are still collecting evidence.
Innocent until proven guilty doesn’t seem to apply to the court of public opinion, though, especially on social media. People rush to judgment even when all the facts aren’t in. I found this to be the case when looking at comments people posted to Stewart stories on The Republic’s Facebook site. Some of the comments tied Saturday’s tragedy to his bad boy image, just as the TV station did.
Other comments were insensitive in the language used. “Idiot” was a common description, and not just about Stewart. Some used the term in blaming Ward, who had been walking down the track to confront Stewart after a wreck. Apparently, some people feel the need to malign the deceased.
The tendency in social media is for people to fire away quickly and pick sides; that’s the nature of the beast. People have their right to express their thoughts thanks to freedom of speech, but there is a tactful way to make a point. Tact, though, is a skill that still needs to be learned.
While watching updates on Sunday and Monday about Stewart, I must have seen a video replay of Stewart’s car striking Ward at least a half-dozen times. And not all those replays were broadcast by a mammoth cable channel whose slogan proclaims it as the “Worldwide Leader in Sports.”
What struck me as odd is that TV stations went to great efforts not to show footage of Pacers star Paul George’s leg snapping when he crashed into a basket stanchion during an Aug. 1 USA Basketball game. I saw that video only once and in real-time speed. The injury makes you grimace, but George lived. Ward died, and that video has been replayed over and over. That doesn’t seem right.
I wish people would pause and take a moment to think before sharing their comments after moments such as Saturday’s tragedy or before making connections that haven’t been established. That’s probably wishful thinking, though.
Kirk Johannesen is assistant managing editor of The Republic. He can be reached at 379-5639 or firstname.lastname@example.org.