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Sports have been at the crux of social unrest and uncomfortable conversations about race long before we knew George Floyd's name.

Think of Jesse Owens. Joe Louis. Jackie Robinson. Tommie Smith. John Carlos. Muhammad Ali, to name a few.

In the four years since NFL quarterback Colin Kaepernick was blackballed by the most powerful entertainment entity in this country, questions about silent protests during the national anthem before a football game will have flipped from "which players are kneeling" to "which players aren't kneeling."

But the times, they are definitely a'changin. Take NASCAR, or NeckCAR, a Southern creation that paid homage to our grandfathers' running moonshine around the mountains of North Carolina to the beaches of Daytona. Its racial profile has been as white as flour, its stories unfolding under the unfurled stars and bars of the Confederate flag.

But more than any other sport, NASCAR, I would argue, is stepping into the fight against racism. It banned the Confederate flag on track grounds. That move was an easy one; the flag should have been canceled a long time ago. The argument of "Heritage not Hate" at best is, as a friend of mine suggested, "Heritage AND Hate" and truly begs the question: How much heritage is in that flag?

The Confederacy lost. Plus, the Confederacy lasted half as long as the TV series "Married With Children," people.

Was NASCAR's move too late? Sure. Too little? Don't think so.

NASCAR's path to being on the right side of history will be long. After all, Bubba Wallace is the only black driver at the sport's highest level. And a disgusting stunt by someone Sunday — a noose was found in Wallace's garage area at Talladega Superspeedway in Alabama — underscores how far the sport needs to go.

But you could make a strong argument that despite the understandable outrage and embarrassment of the noose and the fans outside Talladega waving the Confederate flag, NASCAR the sport has done more to support Wallace in the last 48 hours than the NFL did for Kaepernick over four years.

The NBA? Puh-lease. NBA players have had multiple talks about not returning when the games restart in an effort to stay focused on social issues, but less than a year ago with a chance to stand up for freedom of protesters in Hong Kong, the league and its stars were quick to run from controversy with China, choosing profits over people.

Again, denouncing that flag is pretty easy for an individual. For a monster-sized enterprise like NASCAR, doing it knowing that it could cost the sport countless fans and unforeseen revenue is gutsy.

There's a Turkish proverb that states something like no matter how far you've traveled down the wrong road, there's never a bad time to turn around. For NASCAR, no matter the breakneck speeds it went down that wrong road of history, it has started to turn around.

The image of Wallace before Monday's rescheduled race at Talladega, with every driver and all their crew members pushing his car to the front of the race line, was stunning.

More than that, those images offered hope — from one of the least likely places in sports we may have ever guessed would offer it.

Contact Jay Greeson at jgreeson@timesfreepress.com and follow him on Twitter @jgreesontfp.

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Jay Greeson
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