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News item: NASCAR fines Dale Earnhardt Jr. $25,000 and knocks 25 points from his Nextel Cup point total when he uses "inappropriate language" after winning the EA Sports 500 at Talladega Superspeedway in Alabama.

No one has said much about the fine —- $25,000 is chump change for wealthy athletes —- but there are as many opinions on whether NASCAR did the right thing by taking points away from Dale Jr., as there are stock-car sponsors.

The rub is that Earnhardt was the points leader before his "inappropriate language" and in second place after the 25-point penalty. Junior said he should have chosen his words more carefully after winning in Talladega, but he said NASCAR was wrong to take points away.

Sorry, Junior, but NASCAR did precisely the right thing. See, NASCAR has a rule that its drivers cannot use certain four-letter words when being interviewed by television announcers. And if they break that rule, they are fined and points are taken from them. Earnhardt broke the rule and paid the price.

And, unlike other pro sports, there is no asterisk —- invisible or otherwise —- next to the NASCAR rule with a footnote stating that it might not apply if you're one of the top drivers, i.e., a superstar, or that officials might look the other way until after the playoffs because your team really needs you. You know, something like Major League Baseball might do: "You're suspended for the first two weeks of next season. That way you can play in the World Series."

Earnhardt wasn't the first driver whose mouth got him in trouble, but he was the most prominent, so he may be the last. Brendan Gaughan, Ted Musgrave, Mike Wallace, Johnny Sauter and Ron Hornaday also have taken a hit for their public cussing (that's good ol' boy for "inappropriate language").

Gaughan, who drives the Kodak car, told the media he understands and appreciates where NASCAR is coming from.

"We're in a day and age now where we're no longer (unmonitored)," he said. "We've got to be able to be that way, but it's a corporate-sponsored world now. I represent Kodak. What if I came out and said something like that? I think I would get a bigger fine from my sponsor than NASCAR."

I can't even imagine Allen Iverson or Warren Sapp being even remotely concerned about their image, let alone the image of the NBA or NFL.

Apparently, NASCAR, to its credit and again unlike other pro sports, isn't into posturing. NASCAR doesn't draw a line and warn a driver not to cross it, then, if he does, simply draw another line and warn him not to cross that one. And after a while, there are so many lines drawn and crossed —- so many violations —- that it's all the driver/athlete can do to keep a straight face.

Unfortunately, Earnhardt might have been better off had he snorted cocaine or been charged with sexual abuse or shot somebody during a brawl outside a bar at 2 a.m. —- well, at least if he were something other than a race car driver. Come to think of it, though, if NASCAR fines Earndardt $25,000 and hits him in the points purse, it would probably execute a real criminal.

To many high-profile athletes break the law, then get the equivalent of a wrist slap, sent to their rooms and told to be good boys or else.

Take baseball's illegal drug policy. Test positive the first time and you're required to get counseling. A second positive test means a 15-day suspension and a $10,000 fine. Finally, after five positive tests, the player is suspended for one year.

Oh, and remember former New York Giants linebacker Lawrence Taylor, who has a history of drug offenses? When the gavel finally fell on L.T. a few years ago, he got 18 months probation.

Apparently somebody over there in NASCAR actually realizes that Earnhardt needs NASCAR more than NASCAR needs Earnhardt. And maybe auto racing actually believes image is important, that the general public doesn't watch any sport on television in order to hear the athletes spew vulgarities.

Too bad other sports don't crack down on such talk. Hey, we all have a slip of the tongue now and then, but on national TV is the wrong place at the wrong time. You don't need to know how to read lips to see football, basketball and baseball players and coaches screaming expletives on the sidelines during a game.

Even pro golf, which has the most self-imposed integrity of any sport, has its moments.

A few years ago, I was watching golf on TV when Curtis Strange was distracted by a fan outside the ropes and backed off his shot. Then Strange proceeded to hit his approach shot into a greenside bunker, after which he glared at the guy and yelled, "(expletive deleted), you son of a (bleep)!"

There must have been a microphone close by because it came out loud and clear.

If any sport wants to change or improve its image, it should follow NASCAR's example, ending the conversation with, "And if you don't like it, find another job. End of discussion. Call us when you decide."

Rick Woodson is a former sports editor of The Daily News. He can be reached at rwoodson@rochester.rr.com

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