Monday, January 29, 2007

A horse is a 14-year-old girl is a Joe Montana

Kentucky Derby winner Barbaro has been euthanized due to some progressively deteriorating health issues. Barbaro was known as a gifted race horse, but eight months ago suffered a mid-race "breakdown" of some kind that, as it turns out, was the beginning of the end. Since that time, Barbaro has endured surgeries, complications, painful recovery, and, now, death.

As you might deduce from the general lack of detail or nuance in the previous paragraph, I'm not much of a horse racing fan. But I had heard of Barbaro. I knew he was considered phenomenal. I read about it when he broke down, and, like many, assumed death-by-needle was merely hours away. I was vaguely aware that he was instead treated to the best in horse medicine and encouraged to fight back. That was eight months ago. Just enough time had gone by that my mind had wandered onto greener pastures.

Roy Jackson, one of Barbaro's "owners", said of the decision to euthanize the horse, "We just reached a point where it was going to be difficult for him to go on without pain." When I read this, two things came to mind: middle-aged men with fused spinal vertabrae, and limber 14-year-old girls.

I recently read a story about the pain endured by former football stars in the post-retirement years. Football players place enormous pressure on their bodies for a few years of their lives. They are injured every single time they play. They undergo treatments that are something like placing layer upon layer of spackle over an ever-widening hole in a wall. The San Francisco Chronicle interviewed 30 retired NFL players and found that 20 of them cope with severe chronic pain, 3 have had joint replacements, and 9 have been told they will need joint replacements in the future. The men are in their 40s and 50s now. (See the original article, and my previous commentary on it.)

The football players were grown men when they played. Although they may have begun playing at a young age, these players reached the height of their careers as adults. They were old enough to choose their paths. So I have few problems with the choices of the adult individual athlete, even if they regret their choices 25 years later. In fact, I admire many of them. I nevertheless feel somewhat uncomfortable with the system that pushes these men to push themselves beyond reasonable limits in order to sell diet Pepsi.

I am even less comfortable with those sports whose star athletes hit retirement before they are old enough to hit the bars. Last weekend, I watched a women's (more accurately girls') figure-skating championship while holding my sick and napping (and thus far non-athletic) four-year-old. At one point, just before breaking for commercials, they showed an old home video of one of the competitors at age three, skating to a full-scale routine in full-scale costume through an act reminiscent of JonBenet Ramsey.

The figure-skaters are 14-17 years old now, high-school age, gangly and awkward as they wave to the cameras and mumble through interviews. Yet they skate, many of them, beautifully, sliding onto the ice with grace. I have great respect for their abilities. And I have great fear for their futures.

In an extract from 'In defense of Animals' (a longer portion can be found here), Peter Singer explains:

The animal liberation movement [. . .] is saying that where animals and humans have similar interests - we might take the interest in avoiding physical pain as an example, for it is an interest that humans clearly share with other animals - those interests are to be counted equally, with no automatic discount just because one of the beings is not human. A simple point, no doubt, hut nevertheless part of a far-reaching ethical revolution.

I'm not suggesting we euthanize retired or injured athletes, that we judge that their quality of life is as unacceptable as Barbaro's was. What I am suggesting is that in the area of certain (profitable) sports, humans and animals already receive similar treatment: they are groomed, prodded, pushed to the limit, then left to languish with deconstructed joints and brittle bones. While the feats and abilities of the star athlete are admirable, there is a point at which public admiration of them is pushed into the realm of exploitation and commercialization. Both horse and human deserve better.

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