People are going to be people. Racers are going to be racers. Chase Elliott? He was doing nothing more than being Chase Elliott.
That’s how the 2020 NASCAR Cup Series champ broke his left tibia on Friday, an injury that will keep the Georgian out of his No. 9 Chevy for at least the next few weekends, hoping to return with a medical waiver from the sanctioning body that will allow him championship eligibility despite a springtime spent out of the cockpit.
Let’s be completely clear, though: He wasn’t being careless, he wasn’t being reckless. All the 27-year-old was doing was snowboarding. Elliott has been snowboarding nearly since he could walk. The first time that I interviewed him my task was nearly impossible — not because he was yet to turn 7 years old, but because the kindergartener was too busy turning backflips on his snowboard atop his living room couch to answer my questions. The most recent time that I interviewed Elliot, three weeks ago, he was trying to talk me into getting back onto a snowboard for the first time since I was his age, and that was a while ago.
Snowboarding is what Chase Elliott does to relax. To get away from it all. To clear his mind from the craziness that comes with being NASCAR’s most popular star. His colleagues and competitors, drivers who spend their weeknights and off weekends doing everything from playing pickup basketball games and riding in cycling groups to big-game hunting and driving sprint cars on dirt tracks, have spent the week expressing a total understanding of why Elliott likes to skid his way around the slopes of Colorado.
“Life happens,” Kevin Harvick said this week when asked about Elliott. “You have to be able to go out and live your life to keep yourself sane or this deal will eat you up.”
Harvick’s comments came amid a continuing debate that has been reignited by Elliott’s injury, surgery and absence. It’s a conversation that reaches far beyond the NASCAR paddock and crosses over into stadiums, arenas, locker rooms, anywhere men and woman are paid to compete as professional athletes. It’s also not a new topic. Far from it. It dates back more than a century, to Babe Ruth and his beer-guzzling brethren.
Should these athletes be allowed to put their bodies — the instruments with which they earn those dollars from teams, leagues and sponsors and in turn make even more money for the people who work for those teams, leagues and sponsors — at risk by participating in dangerous activities? The challenge comes in determining exactly what should and/or could be labeled as “dangerous.”
Entire conference rooms filled with league executives, agents and insurance specialists have had shouting matches standing over contracts, unsigned because of that very question. Entire law journals have been dedicated to the subject. Heck, even Tom Cruise gets irritated talking about it.
“Yeah, I can jump off a cliff, but, don’t go snowboarding,” the movie star who famously does his own stunts explained last week on Jimmy Kimmel Live, following a clip of his jumping a motorcycle off a ramp and into a canyon for the next “Mission: Impossible” film, a stunt he performed eight times. “Or they’d prefer I didn’t get on skateboard … and look both ways before I cross the street, because that’s dangerous.”
Kimmel replied, “Like all the rules that a pitcher for the Dodgers would have to abide by, you also have to abide by.”
It’s true. It has become standard operating procedure for a so-called “hazardous activities clause” to be included in contracts for athletes in Major League Baseball, the NFL, NHL, NBA, and WNBA.
The literal breaking point — or tearing point, to be more specific — for team owners when it came to hazardous activities came in December 1967. That’s when Boston Red Sox pitcher Jim Lonborg, celebrating a Cy Young Award, American League MVP and a historically great seven-game World Series showdown with Bob Gibson and the St. Louis Cardinals, went to Lake Tahoe and tore all the ligaments in his left knee during a skiing accident. His career was never the same and the Red Sox, who’d just given Lonborg a raise, didn’t return to the World Series for nearly a decade.
In no time, the major sports leagues all had some sort of hazardous activities clause written into every standard player contract. Past that, individual teams started writing specific language aimed at curbing the seemingly dangerous hobbies of their investments. Even Michael Jordan had to fight the NBA’s no-pickup-hoops rules by writing in a “Love of the Game” clause. Hunting, deep-sea diving, skydiving — you name the sporting hobby and there was likely an athlete who had it added to their personal no-fly list, sometimes very literally.
When it was revealed that Premier League player Stefan Schwarz was obsessed with the idea of space tourism, his club Sunderland made him sign a pledge that he would not try to go into outer space while on the team. Red Sox outfielder Mike “Gator” Greenwell, a NASCAR fanatic, was told he couldn’t drive race cars during the offseason. He retired from baseball in 1996 and immediately went racing, winning the 2000 New Smyrna Speedway Speedweeks title and even making a pair of NASCAR Truck Series starts in 2006.
Kevin Harvick on advice to the drivers under the KHI umbrella: “You have to be able to go out and live your life and do things to keep yourself sane or this deal will eat you up.” pic.twitter.com/rPoj0S9QWI
— Bob Pockrass (@bobpockrass) March 4, 2023
Meanwhile, in the full-time NASCAR world, a business proudly touted as a collection of independent contractors, a league-wide ban on hazardous activities wasn’t doable.
“Besides,” Jimmie Johnson said in 2006, “This entire business is a hazardous activity.”
The then-five-time Cup Series champ had been asked about the subject because he had just broken his left wrist after falling off the top of a golf cart. No, not falling out of a golf cart. Falling off the top, as in on the roof, as in goofing off during the offseason. He missed no races and was fully healed in time for the Daytona 500 two months later.
His employer — and now Elliott’s — is Hendrick Motorsports, and for years team owner Rick Hendrick discouraged what he felt like were dangerous activities, including extracurricular short track racing. That kept even his most legendary sprint car employees such as Jeff Gordon and Kasey Kahne on the sidelines during the week. He has relaxed those restrictions over the years, and his team president has already stated that isn’t likely to be reversed because of Elliott’s injuries.
Joe Gibbs, with his NFL background, has long kept the clamps on his drivers and isn’t going to change that anytime soon — if ever. Although back in the day, Tony Stewart rarely paid that much mind. Kyle Busch drove for JGR for 15 years, breaking both his legs in a Gibbs Xfinity ride at Daytona in 2015.
“I was racing late models and a little bit of dirt cars and Joe would always kind of warn me not to get hurt,” Busch said last weekend at Las Vegas. “Then I got hurt in his car doing something for him, so I was like, ‘Any stipulations you ever had were out the window.'”
Johnson was hurt surfing on a golf cart. Carl Edwards once cut his hand open while foot racing through the garage and grabbing a tool box for leverage around a tight turn. In the late-1990s NASCAR Hall of Famer Bill Elliott, Chase’s father, survived a massive crash traveling 150-plus mph at Michigan Speedway on a Sunday afternoon … and then broke a kneecap two days later when he tripped over a garden hose in the family garage.
“I need to come up with a better story than the real one,” Elliott said at the time. “I need to say I was out bull riding or was in bar fight or something.”
That’s probably what Cleveland pitcher Trevor Bauer was thinking when he had to walk off the mound in the ALCS, blood gushing from his finger because he’d cut it at home while fixing a propeller on a drone. Or another Cleveland pitcher years earlier, Paul Shuey, who went on the disabled list with a shoulder strain because he went to sleep in an easy chair holding his newborn baby in his arms. Or New York Giant Jason Pierre-Paul, who burned his hand on Fourth of July fireworks. Or Tigers righty Joel Zumaya, who hurt his wrist playing Guitar Hero.
When attorney J.J. Pristanski, now legal counsel for the New York Islanders, wrote in his 2018 article for the DePaul Journal Sports of Law that hazardous activities clauses “fail to effectuate the parties’ intent, and are difficult to interpret and apply,” he was referring to all of the above. And yes, 4½ years before the Snowboard Crash Heard ‘Round The Track, he was also referring to Chase Elliott.
At least Elliott was doing something cool. Something awesome. Something that he loves. Can we really ask professional athletes, specifically race car drivers, to be superhumans and then be angry with or question them when they do something that is nothing more than human?
We can’t praise Dale Earnhardt for his love of driving bulldozers and knocking down trees and crashing a horse down the side of a mountain in New Mexico with Richard Childress and then be irritated with Chase Elliot because he hit the slopes. We can’t gleefully tell stories about Cale Yarborough being struck by lightning, fighting off a bear while flying an airplane and bouncing off the ground when his parachute didn’t open and then act like Chase Elliott is irresponsible because he likes to turn ollies in the powder. And we surely should not be allowed to treat Chase Elliott as an old-school stock car thrill seeker when he moonlights in the SRX series each summer but then doubt his judgment because he snaps his boots onto a board in the winter.
No, Chase Elliott just had a bad day while participating in the hobby that he loves most. He will be back in his race car soon enough. Let him heal, both his leg and his pride. And in the meantime, let’s turn the volume down on any chatter about rolling athletes in bubble wrap before they do anything other than their day job.
Besides, we all know what would happen next, especially when it comes to racers. They would go on and do it anyway, just to see how loud of a popping sound they could make.