Lawyer behind discrimination suit calls NASCAR 'old boys club'
Last weekend should have been a celebration for NASCAR. On Sunday, the sport's most popular driver, Dale Earnhardt, Jr., snagged his first Cup win in two years while running out of gas at the finish in Michigan. A day earlier, 18-year-old Joey Logano, long considered the sport's future star, became the youngest driver to win in the Nationwide Series -- the sport's equivalent of Triple A baseball. Two days of young, popular, talented drivers up front, a wave of momentum any sport would love to have.
But Benedict Morelli -- the lawyer for Mauricia Grant in the $225 million discrimination lawsuit against NASCAR -- took note that there was one other intriguing headline over the weekend: Nationwide Series officials Tim Knox and Bud Moore were both suspended, with pay, for what the sport's CEO, Brian France, called "violations in NASCAR policy." France didn't give specifics on what prompted the action while defending his company on Saturday, but both are accused in the lawsuit of exposing themselves to Grant -- an African-American co-worker of theirs who was fired in October 2007.
In a 45-minute interview with SI.com before those suspensions, Morelli shared some of his thoughts on the case.
"I look at this as an opportunity [for NASCAR]," he said from his offices in Manhattan. "There are a number of things that have to go on. NASCAR ultimately has to pay a lot of money -- but they have to do more than that. They have to try to legitimately change the culture. In a lot of ways, a lawsuit like this could benefit them if they make the necessary changes.
"Mr. France, if he is being truthful that he never heard about any complaints with reference to Mauricia -- I think you're not such a good CEO," Morelli added. "You either have set up a culture where they know you don't want to hear about it -- or you're not telling the truth and you did hear about it -- or, you're not doing your job. And it could be that all the people, all the supervisors that he has working for him, guard him from knowing the truth of the culture. It could be any of those. But the problem with those choices for NASCAR is that they all suck."
In the 43-page lawsuit -- already well-documented over these past seven days -- Grant describes how she went to both Nationwide Series assistant director Mike Dolan and director Joe Balash with her complaints, only to have them fall on deaf ears.
According to France, NASCAR has a reporting culture that works, a system he claims Ms. Grant failed to use. "The disappointing thing is she makes a lot of claims, none of them reported,'' France has said. "The fact that it went on as she stated, for many months, but never bothered to tell anyone at management what was going on -- which is what our policy says -- is very disappointing. We would have liked, if those type things were in fact going on, we would have loved to have done an investigation and a review of such an allegation.''
Considering the current executive makeup of NASCAR -- a business that's been family-owned since its inception in December 1947 -- Morelli wonders if something else isn't at play.
"It's appears to be an old boys' club with a lot of people who have known each other for a long time," he said. "Some of the executives have people working for them who they've known for 20 years and they used to race cars together. This isn't a sophisticated operation; this is a bunch of nudniks hanging around together who just happen to be onto something because they were enterprising what is now a billion-dollar business. And they haven't caught up with the fact that America actually has laws protecting women, people of color, people over 40 years old, etcetera."
But in Grant, Morelli claims he's representing a woman willing to stand up against such injustices and change the landscape of the sport.
"It only takes one woman with courage to stand up and say this is unacceptable," he claims. "I said [to my client], she's going to have to have a lot of courage, because this is going to get very intense before it ever gets resolved. I explained this to her and she said she understands; but I swore to her that she really doesn't understand ... she really doesn't."
The long, arduous process of a jury trial could mean years before this case finds a resolution. But as the wheels begins to move forward -- and the controversy deepens -- Morelli hopes that these issues will lead to positive change for everyone involved.
"We're in a world -- 2008 -- the first time a woman ever came close to getting the nomination for the presidency," he said. "And a black man did. [With that in mind,] it would probably behoove NASCAR to really be into diversity. We know that America is changing, but we have to change all the important institutions within America for us to have respect not only for ourselves, but for other people to have respect for us. And we have to do it with a real eye toward doing the right thing.
"You know, when people have already said to me and to her: Well, you probably knew what you were getting into when you went to NASCAR; you have to have thick skin and all of that. And you know what my response to that is? No and No. You don't have to have thick skin when someone's calling you 'Nappy-headed Mo.' You don't have to have thick skin when someone says, 'You're on colored people's time.' OK, you don't have to have thick skin when someone pulls their pants down and shows you their penis. You don't have to have thick skin. What you have to do is tell these people that are doing these outrageous things -- can you imagine that one of these officials said to her that [his buddy's daddy] is high in the KKK and he wanted her to know that. And I don't believe that she has to have thick skin. I believe they have to abide by the law.
"I'm a lawyer approximately 31 years; this case will not change my life. But I want to change the culture at NASCAR. And so does my client. You can't just hire women or people of color and not change the culture. You just can't get Magic Johnson and put his name to [NASCAR's Diversity Programs] and say you're diversified. You can't get one black woman, give her a job, and say you're diversified. You can't have five black officials out of 200 and say you're diversified. It doesn't make sense."