A while ago I got into an argument over whether or not NASCAR drivers are athletes. This argument was caused by NASCAR’s Jimmie Johnson being nominated for male athlete of the year. I am with Golden Tate on this matter: NASCAR is hard, but the drivers are not athletes. However, fairness requires that I actually make a case for my claim.
Before getting to the main event, there is the question of why this matter is even worth considering. After all, why should anyone care whether NASCAR drivers (or anyone else) are considered athletes or not? One reason (which might not be a good one) is a matter of pride. Athletes often tend to regard being athletes as a point of pride and see it as being an accomplishment that sets them apart from others in this area. As such, they tend to be concerned about what counts as being an athlete since this is supposed to be an earned title.
To use an obvious analogy, consider the matter of being an artists. Like athletes, artists often take pride in being set apart from others on the basis of being artists. It matters to them who is considered an artist. Sticking with the analogy, to many athletes the idea that a NASCAR driver is an athlete would be comparable to saying to an artist that someone who does paint-by-number “art” is an artist.
Naturally it could be argued that this is all just a matter of vanity and that such distinctions have no real significance. If NASCAR drivers want to think of themselves in the same category as Jessie Owens or if paint-by-number folks want to see themselves keeping company with Michelangelo, then so be it.
While that sort of egalitarianism has a certain appeal, there is also the matter of the usefulness of categories. On the face of it, the category of athlete does seem to be a useful and meaningful category, just as the category of artist also seems useful and meaningful. As such, it seems worth maintaining some distinctions in regards to these sort of classifications.
Turning back to the matter of whether or not NASCAR drivers are athletes, the obvious point of concern is determining the conditions under which a person is (and is not) an athlete. This will, I believe, prove to be far trickier to sort out than it would first appear.
One obvious starting point is the matter of competition. Athletes typically compete and NASCAR clearly involves competition. However, being involved in competition does not appear to be a necessary or sufficient condition for being an athlete. After all, there are many competitions (such as spelling bees) that are non athletic in nature. Also, there are people who clearly seem to be athletes who do not compete. For example, I have known and know many runners who never actually compete. They run mile after mile and are in excellent shape, yet never enter a race. I also know people who practice martial arts, bike, swim and so on and never compete. However, they seem to be athletes. As such, this factor does not settle the matter. However, the discussion does seem to indicate that being an athlete is a physical sort of thing, which does raise another factor.
When distinguishing an athlete from, for example, a mathlete, the key difference seems to lie in the nature of the activity. Athletics is primarily physical in nature (although the mental is very significant) while being something like a mathlete or chess player is primarily mental. This seems obvious enough to not require any debate. However, the nature of the physical is a matter of legitimate debate.
NASCAR clearly requires physical skills and abilities. The drivers need good reflexes, the ability to judge distances and so on. These are skills that are also possessed by paradigm cases of athletes, such as tennis players and baseball players. However, they are also skills and abilities that are possessed by non-athletes. For example, these skills are used by normal drivers and people playing video games. Intuitively, I am not an athlete because I am able to drive my truck competently nor am I an athlete because I can play Halo: Reach or World of Warcraft with competence. Specifying the exact difference is rather difficult, but a reasonable suggestion is that in the case of athletics the application of skill involves a more substantial aspect of the physical body than does driving a car or playing a video game. A nice illustration of this is comparing a tennis video game with the real thing. The tennis video game requires many of the reflex skills of real tennis, but a key difference is that in the real tennis the player is fully engaged in body rather than merely pushing buttons. That is, the real tennis player has to run, swing, backpedal and so on for real. The video game player has all this done for her at the push of a button. This seems to be an important difference.
To use an analogy, consider the difference between a person who creates a drawing from a photo and someone who merely uses a Photoshop filter to transform a photo into what looks like a drawing. One person is acting as an artist, the other is just pushing a button.
Getting back to the specific matter of the NASCAR drivers, I am inclined to say that what they do is closer to what video game players do: they use a machine to do the actual physical work for them. As such, I would say that they are no more athletes because they race cars than someone is a soldier because he plays Call of Duty.
At this point a natural objection is to point to sports that involve the use of machines. One rather obvious example is cycling. On the face of it, cyclists like Lance Armstrong are clearly athletes. However, they make use of machines to multiply their efficiency.
Fortunately, this objection is easy to handle. While cyclists and others do use machines, these machines are not powered. The athlete still has to provide the physical effort to make it work and, as such, a cyclist is not just pushing buttons and letting the machine do all the work. In the case of NASCAR, the driver is guiding the car around the track, but the car is doing all the actual physical work. With the right technology, the driver could be a brain in a box, “driving” the car with mental impulses. This would involve the same basic skills and nicely shows the extent to which the physical body is a key component of NASCAR. In contrast, a brain in a box could not be a runner or a football player. True, it could be given a robot body-but it would still not be an athlete.
It might be objected that it is the skill that makes NASCAR drivers athletes. However, the skill set seems to focus on operating a powered machine. Operating complex industrial equipment, programming a computer or other such things also require skills, but I would not call a programmer an athlete. Nor would I call a surgeon an athlete, despite the skill required and the challenges she faces trying to save lives.
I would, however, compare NASCAR drivers to sports fishermen and would classify them as sportsmen (or sportspeople to avoid being sexist since there are women drivers including one who was named the sexiest athlete by Victoria’s Secret). This is a worthy title and one that the NASCAR drivers should proudly accept. Lest anyone think I am being sarcastic, I am not. What they do is hard and does require a degree of skill that I certainly do not possess. However, they are not athletes.