I’m not a sports fan.
That’s a statement that might seem curious given that I grew up on a consistent weekend diet of ABC's Wild World of Sports, played organized sports (mostly soccer) for years as a youth, and in my teenage years briefly dreamed I would follow in Peter Ueberroth’s footsteps and eventually be in charge of staging the Olympic Games.
Hindsight tells me that my love of playing sports had far more to do with loving being active and enjoying the social component of being on a team (I love teams) than actually loving the sport, my desire to stage the Olympics was really about my fascination with events that draw people together (c.f. Burning Man), and my love of Wild World of Sports was all about hanging out with my dad and--crucially--being genuinely riveted by "the thrill of victory and the agony of defeat."
These days, I tune into sports only for the crux: I watched the last quarter of a couple Final Four games this year, I watched the last half of the Super Bowl.
I was in LA on Saturday and on the plane ride down read the New York Times pre-coverage of the Kentucky Derby. My friend Karen in NYC has gone to the Derby for years and sung its praises. I was in Kentucky for a lovely wedding a few years ago and got a glimpse of the horse farms and the gorgeous rolling countryside, so I felt some vague social connection with the event. The race lasts, like, 3 minutes and based on my NYT reading was fraught with drama. I was in.
I turned on the TV at 3pm, knowing that post-time was 3:04. Perfect. My sports victory/defeat button was gonna be pushed in, what?, ten minutes or so of TV watching?
The Derby is interesting to me from a business perspective. Typically--think Super Bowl--the advertisers and sponsors are out there trying to get TV viewers to buy their products. Their beer, their pizza, their car. But the Derby is different. Thoroughbred racing is not a middle-class sport and the ads reflected this even though it's on broadcast TV. While I haven't seen this written down anywhere, it was clear that NetJets bought the "jockey pants sponsorship"; every jockey was pimping for fractional private jet ownership. And Yum Brands--Pizza Hut, Taco Bell, KFC--was sponsoring the event not so they could sell more pizza/tacos/chicken but rather "to attract more individual shareholders."
A weird little window into social class, broadcast for all to see.
And then the race.
Starting from the outermost stall, Big Brown just dominated. It was glorious to watch. Riveting. Just amazing. OMG. Wow. "Thrill of Victory"? Check.
And then the second place horse, Eight Belles, "broke down" . . . which I've come to understand is apparently horsey talk for "won't live long." The filly was cooling down and just collapsed with compound fractures (!) in both front legs. She was euthanized on the track.
"Agony of defeat" is one thing, but dying for sport? "Sorry kiddo, you failed to win, we gotta kill ya." That's basically the plot of a Steven King novel I read when I was a kid, but here it was on TV. And the TV folks were ill equipped to handle it. There were faint mentions of Eight Belles--a shot of the equine ambulances on the track, a note that she was injured, a brief statement from the track doc that she'd been put down. And then . . . nothing.
I don't have any great thoughts about horse racing and what's wrong or what's right. I love the rush brought by the "thrill of victory and the agony of defeat" but remain completely upset that a gorgeous being had to die to complete that story.
I don't have a coherent ideology to draw on here to make sense of this, but I've been feeling dirty ever since.
Eight Belles . . . sorry.