As posted last week at Curb My Enthusiasm, and as Tom LaMarra reported in the The Blood-Horse yesterday, our United States government is about to get into the racing game. Letters were sent to various racing industry leaders requesting information on “details on equine injuries; whether racing programs bolstered by gaming revenue use money for research to improve the breed; and whether industry officials support formation of a national governing body for horse racing” (The Blood-Horse). The House Subcommittee on Commerce, Trade, and Consumer Protection has requested this information by June 2nd—that would be next Monday. It certainly doesn’t seem like a lot of time to gather any significant information and put it together in any meaningful way, and I’m sure that this is exactly how Charlie Hayward would like to spend his time, as his New York Racing Association prepares for a record crowd at Belmont in ten days. (The first time I typed that sentence, I typed “record crown.” Dr. Freud…)
Given what I do for a living—I’m a dean of students—I clearly believe that institutions can and should create and work within systems for the good of the community. In the best of all possible worlds, that’s what our government should do.
Unfortunately, previous governmental forays into sports oversight have not exactly shown our elected officials in the most flattering light. This particular subcommittee is the one that looked into the use of steroids in baseball, the one that questioned Mark “I’m not here to talk about the past” McGwire; Sammy “Oops, I forgot how to speak English” Sosa; and Rafael “I’ll lie through my teeth to get away with it” Palmeiro. The hearing was a mockery as it happened, revealing nothing of substance regarding the use of steroids in Major League Baseball, and it’s provided fodder for sports radio and TV ever since.
More recently, a different group of politicians questioned Roger Clemens and Brian McNamee about Clemens’ alleged use of steroids, and when the House Committee on Oversight and Government Reform had the spotlight on them, they delivered a performance unworthy of my high school students, who regularly hear discipline cases with more sophistication, thoughtfulness, and clarity than did the pompous, fawning members of this committee. It was a member of this group who, during the hearing, asked Clemens which uniform he’d wear into the hall of fame. Your tax dollars at work…
The Blood-Horse indicates that a hearing could be scheduled for as soon as next month, so to those in Washington who are getting ready to bring horsemen to the Hill, I offer the following suggestions:
1) Be prepared. Those doing the questioning frequently reveal a profound ignorance of the topic at hand. Names are mispronounced, events are confused, credibility is lost. First and foremost, do a little research, and know what you’re talking about.
2) Come with a goal, but not an agenda. Know what you’d like to find out, but leave your own perspectives at home. You’re not there to declaim your own opinions; you’re there to gather information. Hearing rooms are not your pulpit.
3) Be prepared to learn. Given the sensitivity around racing these days, it’ll be easy for the representatives to be smug and sanctimonious, all in the name of the safety of the horse—it has the potential to play great to any constituents overwrought at the death of Eight Belles and still reeling about Barbaro’s demise. Regardless of what the questioners think they know, or what they think, they will need to listen with an open mind to those testifying, to take in and synthesize information, and to be willing to acknowledge that the folks answering the questions might, just might, know more about the topic than they do.
4) Be humble and keep in mind both parts of the phrase “public servant.” Too often, representatives take their microphone time at hearings as an opportunity to bully and belittle the people they’re questioning. They need to respect the people they’re bringing to the Hill, and to avoid taking the opportunity to grandstand, to draw attention to themselves. They are there to serve the public interest, not to aggrandize themselves.
I’m aware that the odds of any of the above happening are about as long as those of Anak Nakal winning the Belmont, but it would be nice to have my expectations raised, for once, rather than lowered, by those we elect. I’d love to be able to trust that this committee is working out of a genuine desire to make racing safer, and that they will make serious recommendations to…
Ummm…right…to whom will the recommendations be made? NYRA might be there, and the Jockey Club, and Magna, and Churchill. And when it’s over, they’ll all go home to their separate jurisdictions, and their separate rules, with no obligation whatsoever to be in the same room talking about the same issues at any time soon. It will be interesting to hear where this committee would like to start; one of its articulated goals is to “introduce and consider bipartisan legislation to address the problem” of performance-enhancing drugs in sports, not limited to racing (The Blood-Horse). It’s a great idea, but given the lack of uniformity in the leadership and regulation of the sport, it seems that nothing short of a federal law would make that happen, and that sort of action seems unlikely.
I’m too cynical to hope that our government can directly do anything at this point to increase safety in the sport, but perhaps, with an opportunity–or a requirement–to examine it more closely, those charged with overseeing racing will enact change from within, so that those in Washington can turn to their hands to to the many other issues that could use their attention these days.