“Baseball is dying” has been a well-trod trope for years now, when the fact is that even with some struggles, including diminishing World Series ratings, business is booming, with the 19 seasons this century all among the top 24 all-time in attendance per game and record television rights fees.
“Football is dying” is a thought that’s only come to the fore more recently, and given the existential crisis facing a sport with so much brain trauma just as an elemental part of it, rings a little truer. Even so, every Super Bowl this decade has been watched by at least 100 million Americans.
There is, however, a sport that is really dying, and we’ll find out next week if a majority of Florida voters believe it should. One of only 10 states where it is still legal, Florida will vote on Amendment 13 and decide whether to continue to allow dog racing beyond the end of 2020. If the ballot measure succeeds, it would mean doom for 11 of the 17 dog tracks in the country. That doom already exists, really, when you consider that in endorsing a “no” vote on 13, the Fort Myers News-Press editorial board wrote, “Dog racing is dying in the state, and soon, because of pressure from (animal rights) groups, other laws will be changed to discontinue it.” Basically, they feel that this issue does not rise to the level of needing to amend the state constitution.
So, who, in 2018, is in favor of continuing dog racing, and how do they justify it? ESPN’s Outside the Lines went to Florida and put together a fantastic story on the run-up to Tuesday’s vote, and the justifications are… something.
“It would be getting rid of one of the things that a senior citizen can do to stay active,” is what Mary Webb said. She’s 72 and goes to the dog track with her husband George, 89, “at least five times a week.” How, exactly, betting on dog races constitutes being “active” is an unexplored question. Also, Florida still has jai alai, horse racing, and casinos. If you want to retire and sit down and lose money gambling, Florida will be no less of an option if Amendment 13 passes. Simulcast dog race betting would even still be legal, at least as long as the sport remains active elsewhere.
Also, people aren’t staying active by going to the dog track, because ESPN talked to Palm Beach Kennel Club owner Joe Rooney, who “blames the decline in track attendance … mostly on the rise in simulcasting and online betting.”
Rooney also had a gem of a quote to try to support dog racing, after saying that claims of animal mistreatment are “a gross exaggeration of a few incidents.”
“Why would you mistreat what’s making your living?” asked the man whose grandfather, the former owner of the Palm Beach Kennel Club, was Art Rooney Sr., who was better known for his other sports venture, owning the Pittsburgh Steelers from their founding in 1933 until his death in 1988. Why, indeed, would you mistreat what’s making your living? Who would do that? Certainly not the entire institution of the most popular sport in America!
Also, if Amendment 13 passes, Rooney will get to keep his $15 million a year poker room, sell a bunch of the land that the track sits on, pare down his staff by 85% or so, and probably come out better than if the Palm Beach Kennel Club had to go down with the sinking ship of the sport of dog racing.
There is more of Rooney’s line from other dog racing proponents, that the dogs only make money if they finish in the top four in a race, so of course they’re treated well because, as trainer Kathi Lacasse says, “it’s only common sense that these dogs are healthy and happy.” As if nobody has seen the series premiere of The Simpsons.
That’s not to say Lacasse or any of the other dog racers that ESPN interviewed are lying or abuse their dogs. But “a state report … reviewed by Outside the Lines … shows 485 greyhound deaths from Florida tracks between May 2013 and May 2018.”
Following shortly is this telling line: “(Vice president of Greyhound Adopters for Racing John Parker) points out that those deaths represent a small fraction of the tens of thousands of greyhounds that raced on Florida tracks during that same span of time.”
Maybe so, but imagine applying that logic to any other sport. What if half a dozen of the more than 1,500 players in the NFL simply dropped dead? You better believe there would be talk about whether it’s a sport that should continue to be played. Or look at college football and the self-immolation of the athletic department at the University of Maryland after the death this summer of offensive lineman Jordan McNair.
Dog racing will be gone long before football, but the latter had better learn something from the demise of the former about the acceptability of death as a sport’s by-product. People have the free will to play football and the ability to understand risk, something that dogs do not have, for racing. At some point, the danger of the entire enterprise does become too much for the public to bear. We’ll find out on Tuesday if Florida has reached that breaking point.