05/30/2010 05:12 am ET Updated May 25, 2011

The Big Four Pro Sports Leagues are Cracking Down on Athletes, but NASCAR Wants its Drivers to "Have at it and Have a Good Time"

As of last week, an NHL player may be disciplined for intentionally blindsiding another player with a hit to the head. The new rule should not come as much of a surprise--pro sports leagues have become more aware of the dangers of concussions and head injuries and are doing more to protect their athletes. And, of course, it's not just about head injuries. For the last several years, leagues have been cracking down on athlete behavior on and off of the field, walking a fine line between protecting the game and entertaining the fans. Fans don't always agree with where that line is drawn (and, by "fans," I mean "me"). Among other things, the image-conscience leagues have deprived us of the Icky Shuffle, the Sack Dance, the fun bunch, anything resembling Billy White Shoes Johnson, the Dikembe Mutombo finger wag, and NBA players dressed comfortably.

Whether we agree with the rules or not, it's easy to see what drives the leagues to make the changes--concern for the safety of players and fans, a desire to protect the image and integrity of the game, pressure from Congress, and a need to present a product that fans want to see. So, among many other things, we now have a strict NFL conduct policy, penalties and fines for excessive celebrations on the field, an NBA dress code, tougher penalties for steroid use, and various rules protecting athletes from hits to the head.

Of course, not everything is off limits. While it may soon be a fineable offense to cough on or near a quarterback in the NFL (we don't want Tom Brady getting a cold, do we?) the NHL still tolerates (if not embraces) fighting. We can quibble with the NHL's decision to allow the fights, but we can understood why they made it--hockey fans love to see fights, and it's not so bad if the players beat on each other every now and then.

But, it is a little hard to understand the latest ruling by NASCAR. For those who missed it, a few weeks ago Carl Edwards intentionally drove his car into Brad Keselowski 's car at about 190 mph. Keselowski's car spun, flipped in the air, and slammed into the barrier in front of the stands. At the time, Keselowski was running fifth at the Atlanta Motor Speedway, while Edwards was more than 150 laps behind. Edwards claims that he did not intend to flip Keselowski's car, but he made it clear that he intentionally crashed his car into Kezelowski's because of a feud simmering between the two drivers.

Edwards' punishment? A three race probation, but no suspension. To put that in perspective, the NBA recently suspended Channing Frye for 1 game for swinging and missing (twice) with punches during a game. Granted, NASCAR has always operated differently from the big 4 pro sports leagues. Only NASCAR would unveil a drug testing policy with no list of banned substances (in fairness, they did recently add a list, helping transform it from a choose-your-own-adventure (and lawsuit) document to an actual drug policy). The drivers have no union and thus no real voice in the operation of the sport, there is no collective bargaining agreement, and most NASCAR rules and regulations are cloaked in secrecy (fine, they're just not released to the public, but secret cloaking sounds more menacing).

But, why not discipline a driver for committing an intentional "foul," where the foul can kill the driver or even a spectator? What were they thinking? Where's the line here? How many ways can I restate the same question? Well, NASCAR made the answer pretty clear (at least to the first three questions) in public statements earlier this year. Here's what Robin Pemberton, NASCAR's vice president of competition, had to say about policing drivers this year: "We will put it back in the hands of drivers, and we will say, 'Boys, have at it and have a good time.'" NASCAR president Mike Helton added: "There's an age old saying that NASCAR, 'If you ain't rubbing, you ain't racing... I think that's what the NASCAR fan, the NASCAR stakeholders all bought into, and all expect." So, earlier this year, NASCAR lifted restrictions on bump-drafting and allowed drivers to increase horsepower to add excitement (and perhaps crashes) to its races.

And, now, apparently, drivers are allowed to intentionally wreck other cars in the middle of a race. Even for NASCAR, and even given the desire to "let the boys (plus Danica Patrick) have it and have a good time," this seems like a strange decision. No matter how exciting the action might be if the cars and drivers were completely unregulated, NASCAR has to take some steps to protect its drivers and spectators. And, of course, it does. As much as we all might want to see drivers shoot the tires of their competitors with mini-bombs during races (or maybe it's just RC Pro-Am fans who want to see that), NASCAR has a strict liability approach for cars and equipment that do not conform to NASCAR's regulations. Any variation from the requirements--no matter who was responsible for the variation--subjects the driver (and the crew) to potential discipline. These strict regulations are designed to prevent "cheating" and to protect anyone on or near the track during a race.

Given the speed of the races, there is no way to make a race completely safe, and drivers assume some risk every time they get in a stock car. Fans also assume some risk that a piece of a stock car could fly off the track and into the stands every time they watch a race (at least every time they watch a race in person). Some risk is a necessary tradeoff for the excitement of the race itself. But, drivers and fans should not have to assume the risk of one driver intentionally crashing his car into another driver at 190 miles per hour. NASCAR drivers can still "have at it" without trying to wreck their competitor's car in the middle of the race. If NASCAR wants to let its drivers get into fistfights after the race or taunt into each during the week, fine. If that's what it takes to get people to watch a race (or a hockey game), so be it. It's one thing to create excitement, but when the lives of drivers and spectators at risk, one would expect NASCAR to take some control. Let's hope they do before it's too late...