In the Dallas Cowboys game against the New York Giants on October 11, 2020, Dallas quarterback Dak Prescott suffered a gruesome ankle injury in which his bone protruded through his skin.  Bill Barnwell of ESPN wrote: “If you were watching the play, you are not going to forget what you saw for a long time.  If you didn’t see the play, consider yourself lucky.”  Tears running down Prescott’s face as he was carted off the field are seared into my memory.

The Prescott injury is the most recent in a long history of horrific physical and mental maladies incurred by football players.  The National Football League has acknowledged the brain trauma that its violent sport can cause and has instituted stricter rules and procedures to protect players.  Moreover, the most lucrative professional league in the United States, by far, must be concerned that parents of boys are increasingly discouraging them from participating in football. 

Had a racehorse incurred the same kind of ankle injury that the All-Pro Prescott did, the horse would surely have been euthanized.  Horses cannot be convinced to cooperate in their own recovery and rehabilitation. In the words of the 1969 movie, “They shoot horses, don’t they?”

When a serious breakdown occurs in a high-profile race like the Kentucky Derby, the outcry to outlaw horse racing is swift, unrelenting, and emotionally charged.  The sad breakdown requiring euthanasia of Eight Belles immediately after the finish of the 2008 Derby is an unforgettable case in point.

Going back to the early 20th century, there have been pleas and attempts to ban football.  President Theodore Roosevelt even threatened to abolish the sport for its “brutality and foul play.”  Twenty-five players died from football injuries in 1903 and another 18 in 1905.  However, a strong movement to abolish organized football has never gained much steam.

By contrast, some prominent animal-rights groups and zealous individuals habitually work to stop horse racing, employing hyperbole as well as breakdown statistics to persuade people to their point of view.  They proffer that, unlike human athletes, racehorses don’t have a choice. The radical extension of this perspective is that animals should not be used by humans for any purpose.

The degree of risk to participants in football and horse racing can be mitigated but cannot be reduced to zero.  Both are inherently dangerous.  A sport, however, can endure a heart-rending Dak Prescott or Eight Belles incident, as long as the larger society does not see the sport, through its actions or lack thereof, as having a callous disregard for its athletes, both while they are competing and afterwards in retirement.

What the American racing enterprise must do to have a sustainable future is to stay in step with modern-day sensibilities, in particular pertaining to humane treatment for its human and equine athletes, just as the NFL has done with concussion protocols and penalizing late hits to the quarterback, helmet-to-helmet targeting, and blindside blocking.  Fortunately, significant progress is being made in this respect, such as the likely passage into law of the Horseracing Safety and Integrity Act, whip-usage limitations, advancements in track surfaces, and improved aftercare for racehorses. Some measures are controversial in racing circles, but there is no choice except to move forward if horse racing is to have lots of tomorrows.

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