When a piece of media coverage a league dislikes pops up, it’s often passed around and complained about inside that league’s offices. It’s sometimes even complained about publicly, as with the NFL and The New York Times, or with all sorts of various snarkiness from league PR execs on Twitter. It’s much rarer to see league executives actually pass those stories on to their sport’s athletes and cite them as “the kind of coverage killing the sport,” but that’s apparently what NASCAR did with a Jeff Gluck piece in USA Today last year.
Gluck, a veteran motorsports reporter now writing for his own Patreon-funded jeffgluck.com website, shared the story there Friday of what happened last year. He did so in a piece titled “An unpleasant anniversary.” Here’s the key part of his piece:
On the Friday of the summer Daytona weekend last year, a story of mine was published in USA Today with the headline “NASCAR Looks Beyond Declining Attendance, TV Ratings.” This story had been in the works for months, ever since editors watched the April race at Bristol and noticed the tens of thousands of empty grandstand seats.
The conclusion was to do a story explaining to readers what was happening in NASCAR, and I was given the assignment to write it. NASCAR knew the story was in the works — I interviewed chief operating officer Brent Dewar for it, along with 200 fans — but wasn’t happy it was coming out.
During the midseason update meeting, a high-ranking NASCAR executive held up a copy of the newspaper with my story and told all the drivers in attendance that this was the type of coverage that was killing the sport. You have to remember this was in the midst of a title sponsor search for NASCAR, so it was a particularly sensitive time for everyone.
Shortly thereafter, I was approached in the media center by David Higdon, who was leading the NASCAR communications department at the time. He gave me a heads up I’d probably be getting some hostility from the drivers in the coming weeks, because the story was discussed in the meeting and not received favorably by the drivers.
It’s pretty remarkable to see a league take that kind of step about a specific story from a specific writer, and it’s a demonstration of one of the most troubling issues in journalism; organizations trying to push back against publications or writers on future stories because they were unhappy with a previous story. Granted, just complaining about a story this way is much less severe than trying to pull the writer or outlet’s credentials, a fruitless and generally quickly-retracted move we’ve seen from the UFC, countless college teams, and MLS club Real Salt Lake (among others), but sending an implied message to all of your athletes to treat a certain reporter badly seems quite problematic. It definitely led to pushback for Gluck, and as he later notes, not all of that blowback was based on drivers examining the coverage in question and making their own decisions about it:
I walked further down pit road, and bumped into a driver on his way to the car. He stopped and put his hand on my shoulder.
“You fucked us!” he said.
“Come on, did I?” I asked.
“Oh, I don’t know, that’s just what they told us in the meeting,” he said. “I didn’t read it.”
It’s understandable why NASCAR was upset about Gluck’s story. No league wants to be associated with “Declining attendance, TV ratings,” even though that was factual, and even though the piece in question did mention positives for NASCAR as well (a lucrative long-term TV deal, plus organizational commentary about increased digital and social engagement). And the outlet running this story perhaps particularly bugged them, as USA Today is and was the main national newspaper covering NASCAR on a race-by-race basis.
NASCAR gets national coverage from broadcasters, magazines and websites, and it gets significant coverage from local papers around each race), but it isn’t regularly covered by some of the big papers, partly because even nationally-focused papers still tend to emphasize their own city’s sports teams. USA Today is more the exception than the rule there (and it’s helped by having a rare completely-nationally-focused sports section), and its coverage is seen by a lot of people. Thus, even if Gluck’s story was perfectly fair (and it seems that way from the outside, but the executives in question may have had some bones to pick with it), it wasn’t going to go over well. It’s easy to see how execs saw this as hurting the league, especially while they were looking for a title sponsor.
However, that doesn’t justify NASCAR’s apparent response here. For one thing, as with many media bans, this kind of step is backward-looking rather than forward-looking, trying to deliver retribution for a past story instead of working to make future stories more tolerable. And making a reporter’s job harder (through either an outright ban or inciting negativity towards them) generally isn’t going to improve things. For another thing, this looks amateurish and unprofessional; if there was an issue with Gluck’s story, the smarter move would be to discuss it with him or his editors rather than try to punish him down the road. But it’s the attempt to rally drivers against Gluck that’s perhaps most disturbing. League or team executives deciding who they like or don’t like is one thing, but telling athletes a certain story or reporter is bad feels more problematic. Hopefully this kind of move won’t be repeated by NASCAR execs, or by anyone else.