Merriam-Webster’s dictionary defines an “athlete” as “a person who is trained or skilled in exercises, sports, or games requiring physical strength, agility, or stamina.” By those standards, competitive projectile vomitting could make you an athlete. Running in place could make you an athlete. Hell, writing could make you an athlete if you were physically proficient enough to type really fast for long periods of time. But NASCAR drivers are in good shape — and racing is thoroughly exhausting by any objective measure. As Ricky Steinhouse Jr. tweeted in response to McNabb’s comments, “Wow @donovanjmcnabb really? Got to b an idiot. I’d like to see him keep up with @JimmieJohnson in a workout.”
So what’s the answer to this age old question?
Well, NASCAR drivers are athletes — because the definition of “athlete” isn’t inherently limited to ball and/or stick sports. Though it may be a semantic argument, driving a car for 500 miles at 200 MPH is exhausting/grueling/physically taxing, and requires a great degree of vision and agility.
What McNabb could be getting at, is the notion that the car is doing most of the work, and in doing so, the driver is doing relatively little work sitting in it.
But that’s like saying the football is doing all the flying through the air, so football players aren’t athletes because they just wait for it to land. It’s not a fair assessment of the athletic valor of a sport, or it’s participants, to measure their involvement vis-a-vis the function of the instruments of the game. What would hockey be without skates? What would golf be without club technology? The fact of the matter is that all athletes ever really do is master/tame/control the various components of their specific sport.
Whether that’s mastering skating.
Taming a horse for a lap around a track.
Or controlling a bicycle for the Tour de France.
If Donovan McNabb doesn’t like the literal definition of “athlete,” he should take it up with the Merriam-Webster. We think what he meant, was that Jimmie Johnson isn’t the type of athlete he respects — which is an ignorant position given that McNabb has never raced competitively. Until that happens, he won’t be able to imagine racing NASCAR as anything different than a car trip to the Grand Canyon.
20+ yr debate. @NASCAR driver athlete? Never met a "athlete" who actually drove a racecar that doubted it. Care to take a ride Donovan?
— Jeff Gordon (@JeffGordonWeb) November 16, 2013
Certainly, some sports are more taxing than other, and some sports require more stamina and physical strength than others, but that shouldn’t prevent someone from being deemed an athlete just because their sport isn’t the most grueling. If that were the case, the only athletes would be triathlon runners. Ironically, athletics are not a competition.