GROWING SOCIETAL SCRUTINY ON TWO VENERABLE SPORTS

Horse racing in the United States has been the subject of much media scrutiny in recent years. Inquiries and exposes have been forthcoming concerning several practices, notably raceday medication, uneven enforcement of medication-violation penalties, the disposition of unwanted racehorses, breakdowns, and on-track jockey/equine deaths.

However, racing is not alone in receiving increased negative media attention. American football, the most popular sport in the United States, is even more front and center. A few close observers believe it is conceivable that organized football could eventually be outlawed due to safety concerns and liability issues.

Over 1,000 former National Football League players are suing the league for injuries they incurred. The main complaints are that the NFL did not adequately inform these players about the dangers of concussions and has not done enough to take care of former players. Two retired players committed suicide, which has raised questions about a possible link between depression and brain damage.

The 1,000-plus players have basically accused the NFL of deliberately misleading them about the hazards of the sport and discarding them when their usefulness was over. The part about discarding unwanted athletes will sound familiar to followers of horse-racing.

New Yorker magazine writer Malcolm Gladwell sees a similarity between the brutality of football and dogfighting.

The NFL could gradually lose its luster because the player pipeline will be diminished and interest in football will atrophy. More and more parents of grade school and high school students are likely to discourage or even prohibit their boys from playing on school football teams.

Tom Brady Sr. whose namesake son is the quarterback of the New England Patriots, told the Wall Street Journal’s Jason Gay, that if his son were a teenager today, “I would be hesitant to let him play.” This sentiment was echoed in Gay’s article “Football, Fathers, and the Future” by former NFL QB Kurt Warner about his own son.

Gay reports that onetime Dallas Cowboy QB and current NFL television announcer Troy Aikman sees a time when the NFL loses much of its appeal: “You talk about the ebbs and flows of what’s popularity and what’s not. At some point, the (TV) ratings aren’t going to be there.”

Aikman may prove to be right if the history of horse racing is a guide. The turf sport once rivaled Major League Baseball in its heyday in popularity.

College football is also being criticized, but on other grounds. Buzz Bissinger, the author of the bestselling football book “Friday Night Lights” wrote an article for the Wall Street Journal titled “Why College Football Should be Banned.” His concern is that college football “has no academic purpose” and is corrupt. He says:

“I am not some anti-sports prude (but) I would prefer students going to college to learn and be prepared for the rigors of the new economic order, rather than dumping fees on them to subsidize football programs that, far from enhancing the academic mission instead make a mockery of it.”

Bissinger believes that college-level football belongs in a minor league paid for by the NFL.

Interestingly, when Theodore Roosevelt was president, there was a national movement to ban college football, owing to the mounting number of deaths it caused. Roosevelt encouraged coaches to reform the sport to save it, which they did.

Modern society has much easier and faster access to information about the particular issues that plague football and horse racing. And an informed society is not as tolerant of practices that are a risk to athletes, especially equine athletes who cannot think for themselves.

The NFL is as high of a profile sport as there is in the United States. Albeit horse racing is not nearly as much in the limelight, it attracts considerable attention during the Triple Crown season. Moreover, the powerful New York Times has published unflattering articles and editorials about the sport.

If horse racing is to regain some of its patina, great strides will need to be made in curbing the practices that cause the negative fallout. For this reason, the glaring media spotlight may turn out to be a blessing, as the heat is turned up on bad practices.

Given the inherently violent nature of football, whether injuries can be reduced dramatically through technological advances in equipment is iffy. A step in the right direction is to ban game-day drugs that mask pain and allow players to compete with injuries.

By contrast, horse racing’s problems are more tractable, provided the will exists to take them on. Unfortunately, in my experiences, after all is said and done, more is typically said than done. Let’s hope this is not the case.

Copyright © 2012 Horse Racing Business

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