To tell or not to tell

by Bob Carson

Editor’s Note: The USTA Web site is pleased to present freelance writer Bob Carson and his popular “Outside the Box” features. This monthly series is a menu of outlandish proposals presented with a wink — but the purpose behind them is serious.

“There is no such thing as bad publicity except your own obituary.” — Brendan Behan

“Publicity is like poison; it doesn’t hurt unless you swallow it.” — Joe Paterno

“Publicity can be terrible. But only if you don’t have any.” — Jane Russell

Bob Carson

The veteran harness horseman spread his hands, leaned forward and spoke to me with obvious frustration.

“Why don’t you turn over the rocks and expose the bad apples in the game?”

Not withstanding the dreadful metaphor — I hate this question. I’m sure that equine editors and racetrack operators get it more than they want. I tried to plead my case from several angles.

“I don’t want to write exposes and publishers don’t want to publish them.”

“The mission of trade publications is not hard hitting investigative journalism; it is promotion of the sport.”

“Proof is elusive, the innocent may be harmed.”

“Advertisers and supporters may be upset.”

“It is very, very hard to look someone in the eye and accuse them of cheating — it is harder to do it in ink in front of thousands.”

“Litigation lurks everywhere.”

My harness horseman friend standing in front of me did not agree. He pushed hard. One observation stuck in my mind.

“We have tried being quiet for a long, long time. Maybe we should make some noise.”

When I got home from the racetrack, I flipped open the sports and entertainment sections in my local newspaper.

Lead story, Sports Page — opens with this sentence — “It is funny watching NASCAR’s red-handed cheaters declare themselves jaywalkers while accusing others of murder.” The story goes on to illustrate nefarious deeds by the racing gang.

We turn to the next featured section of the sports page, baseball coverage. The headline, “Lawyers Plead to Leaked Testimony.” Then a long diatribe on Barry Bonds, drugs, drug testing, legal proceedings and tainted home run records.

I flipped the page to professional football. The off-season column deals with coaches being fired and hired. Information on the players reads like a police blotter with arrests, convictions and sordid rumors.

Finally, professional basketball, where the big news of this week is homosexuality. A former professional player has emerged from the closet and other players and writers are excitedly giving testimonials as to the effect of gay hoopsters and the correctness of revealing themselves to teammates.

There is no news on harness racing in my newspaper today. There will be little in the future because my local horse writer, an excellent journalist, has been dismissed due to lack of interest.

I turned to Time Magazine and the Wall Street Journal — more of the same.

Here is a tricky question and the gist of this article. Is it possible that horse racing is not in the news today because we try to avoid exposing and exploiting dirty linen in public?

In newspapers, magazines, radio, television and blogs, you will find a very small percentage of the sporting attention actually focused on the scoreboard or on-field activities. The majority of attention is on the off-field shenanigans and machinations. People stand around water coolers and discuss the hockey player that was discovered in a wrecked car or with a line of blow, not that he assisted on a goal in the third period. They are interested in the 19-year-old shortstop that has defected from Cuba and is in negotiations for a billion dollar contract, not that he tripled in the sixth inning of a spring training game. The game may be the framework but the stimulation, fascination, attention and the money, yes money, flows toward peripheral events surrounding the games. Many of these stories are not pretty.

People have a voracious appetite for the shady, seamy and strange. Here is a very short list of items that soak up oceans of ink and eons of talk — Brittany Spears, Robert Downey, Jr., Michael Jackson, Enron, Pete Rose, Barry Bonds, O.J. Simpson, Terrell Owens, John McEnroe, bicycle racers, etc.

If a sports person, let’s say a golfer, opens a clinic for homeless children and announces he will only travel in eco-friendly vehicles, this will not get much press. If this same golfer punches out his agent whom he discovers is stealing his money and is having a sordid affaire with his wife — this story will have legs. Before the agent’s bruises heal or the divorce papers fly, the golfer will see his fame grow and attendance at his next tournament will increase. And don’t blame the media for this travesty; the media will give the people what sells.

If you wish to begin a career as a tabloid journalist in harness racing, you will find the road difficult. You may find material but few markets. It seems that although horse racing at all levels has its share of dirty laundry, equine participants are very shy about hanging it out in public. Other sports and entertainment not only hang out the dirty linen, they turn a spotlight on the stains, add a soundtrack, orate, litigate and run with the exciting news as long as possible.

Horse racing operates under the principle that if ugliness is hidden, the results will be good for business. There may be two flaws in this premise.

1. The ugliness is never hidden, it will be discovered and spread through the backstretch and grandstands like a brushfire. When these rumors are not bantered about in print and other media, they do not disappear. The seamy stories that are skipped over simply fester and frustrate.

2. Striving (unsuccessfully) to be uncontroversial and spotlessly clean (unrealistic) does not seem to be all that good for business (unproductive). Maybe we should join the rest of the entertainment and sports world, throw open our barn doors and dig deep for dirt.

Editors, governing bodies and the establishment will read the above words and get very nervous, and they should. Going down the road of transparency is a dangerous voyage that is not for the faint of heart. There will be lawsuits, tears, unhappy constituents, expenses and the voices of praise will be barely heard.

It is easy to propose that harness racing open the door and let a fresh breeze blow across some stinking manure. It is terrifying to actually do it. Pointing a finger at a miscreant is guaranteed to bring a rapid heartbeat and spastic colon. It is hard. You are vulnerable. People get hurt. Your insurance policies, including people, may not have your back. Horse racing has been reticent about publicizing problems for so long that a reversal of course is going to be difficult.

Essays like this that are long on pontification and short on practicality are annoying. Here is a trio of suggestions for sticking our toes in this muddy water.

1. Courtroom proceedings give cover. Despite expenses and inconvenience, the judicial system puts layers of insulation between the accused, the accusers and the reporters. When a horseman winds up in the public docket, the testimony, evidence and rulings are fair game. A neutral presentation of public facts in a horse racing matter should find their way to the masses. People in the industry and the grandstands crave this information.

2. Unusual, strange, exotic. Unattractive characters and situations are not a third rail. American culture has arrived at a point where being abnormal is an asset. Some characters in horse racing have a bit of the exhibitionist and more than a few flaws. Chronicling their adventures are less dangerous that confronting a rogue chemist.

3. Conflict sells. In horse arenas you will find more than one point of view. These views should be covered and the conflict will be stimulating. Who is the best stallion? What is the best racing schedule? How big should the take-out be? Should racing expose and exploit the tawdry side? Get people to take racing positions and defend them in magazines, and on the radio, Internet and television — any venue that gets us some attention. It is possible and preferable to present conflicting sides without taking sides.

This little menu is a start. Relatively speaking, these three are safe harbors for launching a new approach to horse race coverage and promotion. The hard reporting will take unbelievable courage. Racing is behind the curve in using our flaws as assets. The insular path of sticking our heads in the sand has led to a promotional blind alley. The old road of accentuating the good, and ignoring the bad has proven to be a bad business model. In horse racing, the tendency has been to gallop away from trouble. Maybe we are galloping in the wrong direction.

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